The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the famous “Cities of the Plain,” occurs early on in the Book of Genesis. The priestly redactors of the Bible rewrote the story to make their own moral points and pushed the events back into the primordial past of Israel, when God’s presence was pervasive, as it is in their version of the story. The actual events took place much later, however, during the reign of Solomon, when the Lord seemed far less inclined to intervene in human affairs. The account that follows intends to be historical rather than moral, but the unvarnished events nonetheless constitute a cautionary tale.
Gomorrah was a small but wealthy city on the Jordanian plain within sight, and at times smell, of the Dead Sea five miles to the south. Dead Sea is a little dramatic; more descriptively and soberly it was the Asphalt Sea. The sea was dead alright, and whatever life the Jordan poured into its northern end was immediately overwhelmed by the mephitic chemicals that bubbled up from the springs on the bottom. No fish swam there; no plants grew in its tainted waters. Commercially, however, there was still a sliver of life in the aquatic corpse: the mud at its margins was thought to improve both the health and the complexion. Maybe.
“Maybe” did not bother the citizens of Gomorrah, who packaged it as “Gomorrah Mud. Dead in the Sea; Alive on Your Face” and sold it door to door in the fashionable quarter of Jerusalem’s western hill where the priests and their wives dwelled and, by special commission, to the ladies of Solomon’s palace on Sion.
Sodom, on the other hand, was a small agricultural village to the north of Gomorrah. They had vegetable gardens around their neat houses and farmed spelt in the neighboring fields. It was a quiet and orderly place that would not have been much out of place in a seventeenth century Dutch landscape.
There was a certain amount of commerce between the two places, a considerable amount in fact, and that takes us back to Gomorrah. The Gomorrans were no mere peddlers of mud; their solid homes and their glittering wives and carriages, their frequent excursions to Jerusalem and their annual vacations on the Moab Heights all pointed to something more than mudpacks.
The true foundations of Gomorran prosperity rested on two very lucrative enterprises. The Gomorrans cultivated something called Dead Sea Weed, which, when chewed or inhaled from a brazier, produced effects that the Israelites called ”prophetic”: Major or Minor, Israelite prophecy had its literal roots in the delta of the Jordan. Red Sea Weed was sold throughout Solomon’s Kingdom, and no small part of the proceeds came from consumers in the royal palace. Hiram of Tyre was another substantial customer; it was said in Sidon that he spent his entire reign wrapped in a haze of Red Sea Weed.
Though the proceeds from trade in Red Sea Weed were considerable, they were dwarfed by those from the Gomorrans chief industry: the city was Israel’s pork store. Hidden in the impenetrable Judea highlands, the Gomorrans had carefully concealed farmsteads where they raised pigs. The well-fed porkers were butchered at the site, smoked and packaged for distribution throughout Israel, not as “Gomorran Pork” of course but as “Edom’s Prime Pork” under the brazen pretense that it was the godless Idumeans of the south who were leading the Israelites down the bacon-strewn path to perdition. The Lord had forbidden the flesh of pig to Israel, but there were nonetheless more than enough Israelites who craved pork to make the Gomorrans very rich indeed.
The Gomorrans’ two enterprises were lucrative but they were also dangerous and illegal. Levi ben Nathan, David’s Minister for Eretz Israel, had declared the Dead Sea and its banks a royal domain, and so its mud was subject to a special tax which now, in the reign of Solomon, the good burghers of Gomorrah had managed to whittle down by generous bribes to the Royal Commissioners together with complimentary access to the city’s exquisitely and exotically maintained –Naomi of Nineveh was a legend throughout the Middle East— brothels.
More difficult than turning a suggestible Royal Commissioner was dealing with Solomon’s tax collectors who annually inspected the books of the kingdom’s settlements. The inspection at Sodom took no more than a languid afternoon; at Gomorrah there was a week-long inquisition into the sources of the city’s ostentatious but somewhat mysterious wealth. The auditors departed as puzzled as when they arrived. They had unwittingly encountered The Scheme.
The author of The Scheme was one Shmuel ben Caleb, the richest man in Gomorrah and, equally consequentially, the uncle of Lot, Sodom’s principal spelt factor. Ben Caleb was the unhidden hand behind every one of Gomorrah’s commercial ventures, but he took a particular interest in the management of Gomorrah’s famous brothels. He recruited constantly and carefully –Naomi of Nineveh was a notable, and expensive, coup— from both home (Chorazin and Bethsaida in Galilee seemed particularly deep in women eager to take up residence in Golden Gomorrah) and abroad: Benghazi Beulah was a star; Halebi Hyacinth had a devoted following among those who favored a taste of the forbidden fruit of Hellenism; and a whole carriage-load of Egyptian specialists in Nilotic eroticism drew clients to Gomorrah from Cyrenaica to Carchemish. And down a dark side street was the entry, unlit and unidentified, of the male brothel. This too was lucrative, but its fame was whispered, not shouted; indeed, sometimes a visit was simply described as “getting Gommored.”
The later sin cities of Israel, Caesarea-by-the Sea with its notorious beachfront cabanas and Tiberias with its nearby equally notorious hot baths, may have had more to offer in spa-like amenities, but in the tenth century Gomorrah was by any measure the wickedest place in all of Eretz Israel.
The customers were as diverse as the talent. There were Israelites of course, and goyyim from the galut, but a substantial amount of the trade came from Edom to the south. Apparently the Idumean ladies were slow to the camel skin, as the saying went, and so their spouses and other camelleros of Edom came often up to Gomorrah for a raucous weekend and a profitable one for the Gomorrans.
The not entirely happy-go-lucky Idumeans were, however, as dangerous as they were profitable. Predatory camel raids were a fact of life in southern Eretz Israel. The Gomorrans generally managed to buy off the raiders with a rain of silver or, in moments of desperation, by the gift of a brothel star. The rural Sodomites were not so lucky The Idumeans were not terribly interested in spelt –their camels spit it out— but there was always the occasional young Sodomite beauty to be carried back to the black tents of Edom.
There was a pounding on Lot’s door. Edom had come to Sodom again.
“Open up or we’ll use your door for kindling to fire your house.”
“No need,” said Lot, opening the door. “I have protected status bought and paid for in Gomorrah.” And he handed them a document with the seal of Gomorrah.
Documents and seals were of little interest to the Idumean raiders who were illiterate in any event. Lot, however, whose house was noticeably grander than his neighbors’, did interest them.
“What’s in there?” demanded Herodes, the Idumean leader, pointing with his whip to a closed door.
“Just spelt,” Lot answered.
“You keep that shit in your house?” muttered Herodes. “And what’s in there?” pointing to a second closed door.
Behind that closed door were three highly placed and very frightened Gomorran ministers sent to check Lot’s books. If anything were to happen to them…
“Oh there,” Lot said, as if he had just noticed the room. “Just some very important envoys from Gomorrah. I think it’s best not to disturb them in their sleep.”
“I’ll bet they have certificates too,” Herodes laughed. “Open up and let’s have a look at them.”
“Wait, wait,” whispered a now thoroughly frightened Lot. “Maybe we can do a deal here. Look at this.”
Lot unlocked the door of the spelt storage room. Inside were huddled a woman and two young girls.
“This is my wife and these are my daughters, twelve and fifteen, both virgins, untouched. I’ll sell them to you if you leave the commissioners alone.”
“You’ll sell them to us?” Herodes roared. “You may keep your wife, Master Lot, since you have a certificate with a seal.” Then, turning to his men, “Tie the young one onto my saddle and the other wherever you want. We’ll test their virginity on the way back. And you, you shit-hearted excuse for a father, open the other door. We’ve already wasted too much time here. We just want to identify them.”
The Hebrew language, for all its straightforward power, is also subtle, and ambiguous. Take, for example, the Hebrew verb yada, which generally means “to know” or, by extension, “to identify.” But it can also mean, go figure, “to have intercourse with.”
Lot unlocked the door and Herodes and his men entered the darkened room. There were indistinct sounds, movement, muffled cries. Finally the Idumeans emerged.
“OK, we identified them good and proper. We’re off. Thanks for your hospitality in gifting us with your daughters, you scum.
After they were all gone, Lot went hesitantly, lamp in hand, into the commissioners’ room. The men were huddled on the bedding.
“Are you alright?” Lot asked.
“Yes,” the chief said, “and no thanks to you. They identified us alright and then gave us a quick beating to boot. How do you think this is going to play with Ben Caleb?”
And they left forthwith, preceded to Gomorrah, via swift word of mouth, by the report that they had been raped.
The Lord had set his commandment against the eating of rabbit, gecko and owl; against hybrids like fish without scales –farewell crab cakes, shrimp creole, lobster Newburg — and women who wear pants. But the Almighty seems to have saved his fiercest moral anger for pederasty, for “a man who lieth with a man”… It Is “an abomination.” The Israelites for their part showed little inclination to dine on owl or vulture, but they were one with the Lord on pederasty: they hated the sin and the hated the sinner, all the more when it was thought to be rape. “Getting Gomorred” took on a new and sinister meaning.
Rage ran through Gomorrah like a river of fire and cries for vengeance rent the heavens. Shmuel ben Caleb was not about to send armed men into Edom; they would have been destroyed in an hour by the Idumean cameleers. Instead, he turned the anger of the city toward a softer target, Sodom.
“The fuckers in Sodom allowed this to happen,” Ben Caleb announced, or rather dictated, to the city council. “They’ve been useful in the past but now they’ve become the cause of the greatest outrage ever visited on our city. They’re not the only money-laundrymen in the Jordan plain and so I propose we teach our shit-faced neighbors a salutary lesson and burn Sodom to the ground so that there’s nothing to mark the spot but a stinking pile of spelt.”
The proposal was passed, like all such from Ben Caleb, by acclamation.
Lot had well paid friends in Gomorrah and was quickly informed what was in store.
“Quick, wife! ,” he said. “We must leave here immediately. Sodom is about to be destroyed and we have no protection; there are not ten men in this place that I trust, so we’ve got to be careful. Back alleys, out the small port near the Jordan Gate, then down to the river. But we’ve got to stay close to the reed paths near to the bank.”
They left with only the clothes on their back and, more importantly, dressed in two cloaks heavy with shekels Lot had sown into them against an occasion just such as this. And in their arms were two similar cloaks intended for his daughters.
Once out of the city, Lot and his wife crept down to the river with its marshy reed paths along the bank. They turned north, heavily weighed down with a fortune in shekels.”
“Wait!” Lot heard from behind him. ”The shekels are too heavy,” his wife cried. “Can’t we just leave them? I’m stuck in the salt marsh. I can’t move.”
“Here,” Lot said, taking hold of her outstretched hand. ”Throw the shekels over here and I’ll try to pull you out.”
So she did and so he tried. There was no movement. Indeed, she was slowly sinking deeper, now up to her knees, into the salt marsh.
Lot, who had offered to sell his two daughters to brutal strangers, stood and weighed his options.
“I’m sorry, wife. I cannot help you. I can only try to save myself. Farewell, dearest.”
So saying, Lot shouldered the extra shekels and wearily continued his way north and to silver-lined safety. If he had turned back and looked, which he didn’t, he was would have seen Sodom engulfed in flames.
By morning the once well-ordered village of Sodom was nothing but a pile of smoldering embers; the sickening smell of burnt spelt hung over the site like a miasmic cloud. Here and there a Sodomite stood and silently contemplated the town’s desolation; most of the survivors were already moving onto the Jordan plain, searching for shelter and perhaps the charity of their fellow Israelites.
Lot made it as far north as Hebron. He had avoided most of the towns along the way, sleeping in the fields wrapped in his cloaks and cadging food as best he could. But at Hebron he had felt himself at a safe enough distance from Gomorrah to go into the town and try real food and lodging.
“God will protect me,” Lot thought, but apparently God was engaged elsewhere since he immediately encountered a royal checkpoint. Solomon did not fancy unannounced visitors to his palace atop Sion’s hill.
“What do we have here?” the inspector said, “Musical cloaks, What a rich sound!”
The game was up.
A week later, a priest, one David ben Solomon –yes, that Solomon— sat at his ease, richly robed, in one of the small judgment chambers of the royal palace. Lot stood uneasily before him, limp, tired and smelling of salt and spelt.
“Paying your tithes to the Temple, were you?” the priest began. “The accountants have put it at four million. Where does a man like you get such a fortune?”
“I’m a wholesale dealer in spelt.”
“Yes, poor Sodom. You must have done very well indeed.”
“And the bulk of the product goes to Gomorrah?” The priest asked smoothly.
“Yes,” said Lot, warming to his narrative. “The Gomorrans love their spelt. On pita bread with a dollop of honey. Quite tasty.”
“What puzzles us, however, is that there are, or were, no storage warehouses in either Sodom or Gomorrah where large, very large, quantities of spelt might be stored. The spelt was virtual; the shekels were actual. Suppose you begin by telling us your name,”
“Ah, yes, the same Master Lot who sent those pious pilgrims up every year for the hag, the ones with the donkeys cross-legged from the weight in shekels they were bearing. Yes, Master Lot, we know all about that. We’ve been very interested in your high-stakes transactions in Jerusalem. The Temple is not a place for the storage of dirty money. The kingdom has confiscated the entirety of it, as well as the shekels you had on your person. We’ll clean your money till it shines as brightly as Solomon’s own crown.”
“And what’s to become of me?” Lot asked.” “I’m just a helpless pawn in this business.”
“As for you, Master Lot, you are sentenced to five years hard labor in Gahanna, our fragrant garbage dump, Take him away.”
The destruction of Sodom, the arrest of Lot and the confiscation of the mountain of silver shekels the citizens thought that had safely secured in the Temple treasury spelled ruin for Gomorrah. The sale of Gomorran Mud, now rebranded as Royal Red Sea Mud, passed directly into the hands of the palace. The Red Sea Weed Trade was subjected to close inspection by Solomon’s tax collectors, who were themselves overseen so as to reduce the possibility of subversion by Gomorran bribes, as previously. The pork industry was completely shut down or rather, was abandoned by the Gomorrans and swiftly reopened by opportunistic entrepreneurs from Askalon. The Israelites would have their pigs’ feet and bacon.
Slowly Gomorrah began to sink to its natural level of life and prosperity. Its inhabitants, many of whom had never touched hoe or plow, turned to farming simply to feed themselves. Naomi of Nineveh could be found headlining in a Jericho spa, and the recent past was buried irretrievably deep in the collective memory of the Gomorrans. Shmuel ben Caleb took to studying Torah.
None of this escaped the attention of the neighboring Idumeans, who were, like all predators, quick to catch the scent of a weakening prey. Probing raids were sent out at night into the outskirts of Gomorrah. The reports were encouraging. The city walls were not manned; sentry duty at the gates was desultory. Activity inside the city seemed minimal; the Gomorrans were clearly staying at home.
Herodes slowly gathered his forces from across Edom, most of them Bedouin ever looking for loot and a chance to carry off women to the black tents. The opportunity came when many of the men of Gomorrah set off on the hag to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover in the holy city. The Idumeans struck swiftly and silently at night as was their habit. Every house was entered; every public building was searched. Women and children were dragged moaning and crying from their homes, thrown across and fixed to camels’ saddles and carried off screaming into the night. Behind them, the raiders left the city in flames.
By morning Gomorrah was, like Sodom before it, a pile of smoking rubble.
The Cities of the Plain were no more.
It is clear that it was the priestly editors of the Bible who shifted the onus of moral blame from Gomorrah to hapless Sodom; more, they changed the then current “to be Gomorred” to “to be Sodomized” to describe what may or may not have occurred in the village that night. It did not take long for the noun “Sodomy” to appear in the literature of Israel, to the eternal shame of the innocent village. A motive? If it is permitted to speculate, which everyone does with the Bible of course, the Temple priesthood was not too eager to have it revealed that they had been gulled, however briefly, by the Gomorran scheme, or that the slightly dim Lot had outwitted them and so they changed the story accordingly.