Yet they were not quite as lawless as history seems to think. The evidence points to a society where the law was highly regarded and the people would not willingly break the rules.
The real problem, as Pinchas Peli explains in a noteworthy essay, was the law itself.
Sodom had a law, and the citizens were law-abiding – but the law was harsh and unkind. It enabled them to regard charity as decadent and to deem visitors a nuisance.
Josephus says, “The Sodomites became so proud on account of their riches and prosperity that they were unjust toward humans and impious toward God… They hated strangers, and they abused themselves with sodomical practices” (Antiquities of the Jews, 1:11).
Yet it was all quite subtle.
When a stranger arrived at the gate, they didn’t turn him away. They brought him in and offered him a bed.
There were two beds reserved for guests, one long and one short. If the stranger were short, they would give him the long bed – and stretch his limbs so that he fitted the bed. If the stranger were tall, he would get the short bed – and he was trimmed to size.
Hence, in Jewish literature mittat s’dom, “the bed of Sodom”, became legendary.
Greek mythology had the similar idea of “the bed of Procrustes” (Plutarch’s Lives, Theseus, 11). Pir’kei Avot (5:13) and other sources speak of middat s’dom, “the usage of Sodom”, whereby terrible things are done in the name of political correctness and legalistic pedantry.
Mittat s’dom and middat s’dom – a nice play on words, but nothing to be proud of. No wonder Sodom and its sister city, Gomorrah, needed to be destroyed.