Translation commentary on Jude 1:7

A third example is now given, namely, the account of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is regarded by biblical writers as the best example of divine judgment of the wicked. The Gospels contain references to Jesus using this illustration (for example, Matt 10.15; 11.24; Mark 7.11; Luke 10.12; 17.29). The reference here is to Gen 19.11-28, which relates how the men of Sodom had demanded that Lot should surrender to them the angels who had visited him, so that the men of Sodom could have sexual relations with them. This story has similarities with that in verse 6: the presence of angels, sexual immorality, and eternal punishment.

The surrounding cities include Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar, but Zoar was spared God’s punishment (see Gen 19.20-22). In some cultures there are no human settlements that are the equivalent of cities and “towns” (Good News Translation), but people live in villages or small groups of houses. In such cases it will be necessary to refer to a city or town as “a large group of houses surrounded by a strong wall,” or perhaps as “the large (or, chief) village.” There are small island cultures, however, which have only one word for “place” or “land.” In cases like this the equivalent for “city” will be “a place where many people live surrounded by a strong fence.” The first clause of this verse can then be rendered as “Remember the big places of Sodom and Gomorrah surrounded by high fences, and the other places nearby where many people lived.”

Acted immorally can be understood in a general sense as referring to all forms of sexual sin. The first meaning of immorally is “not conforming to established patterns of social conduct and ethics,” which is the sin for which Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, according to (Ezekiel 16.48-51); the secondary sin of excessive sexual misconduct occurs in addition to the primary sin of immorality, and should carry no more weight than that (in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah), while indulged in unnatural lust can be understood as referring to a particular kind of sexual immorality. Likewise refers back to the angels in verse 6 and indicates that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are being compared to the angels; that is, they indulged in the same evil acts that were committed by the angels, a fact made clear in Good News Translation. Translators need to investigate the range of vocabulary in their language in so far as “sexual immorality” is concerned. Possible models are “licentious sexual behavior” or “unlawful sexual intercourse.”

But what does the expression unnatural lust refer to? The Greek simply has “other flesh,” or “different flesh.” Some scholars have understood this to mean having sexual relations with people of the same sex, as, for example, men with men (see Rom 1.26-27; 1 Cor 6.9). Others take the position that the focus here is not on homosexual acts but on the parallel between the angels and the men of Sodom and Gomorrah; in much the same way that the angels had sexual relations with human beings, so also the men of Sodom wanted to have sexual relations with angels. This latter point of view seems preferable because of the close relation between these two verses. However, it seems that in most languages, as in Good News Translation, unnatural lust will be rendered as “sexual perversion,” “perverted sexual activity,” or “abnormal sexual activity,” without being more specific as to the nature of the sexual activity.

The result of such sexual immorality is now revealed as undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. The verb for undergoing is in the present tense, which means that the inhabitants of Sodom are at the moment going through their punishment. Some scholars suggest that there may be a reference here to the Dead Sea, which is 30 miles from Jerusalem and 1,280 feet below sea level. In Jewish tradition the Dead Sea is a result of the destruction by fire of Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities; it is even believed that these cities continue to burn underground. This is easy to explain, since the Dead Sea is very hot, with the water getting hotter because of hot springs from the bottom. While it is possible and even likely that Jude had this tradition of the Dead Sea in mind, yet he is primarily referring here to the eternal fires of hell, where the people of these cities continue to suffer; this again relates verse 7 with verse 6, which speaks of the “nether gloom.” The word translated example is literally “sample”; that is, here is an actual case of sinners being punished; this serves both as proof and as warning to future generations of the reality of divine punishment (note Good News Translation “plain warning”).

Eternal fire is the same expression used in some literature of the period leading up to the New Testament (for example, 4 Maccabees 12.12) and in the New Testament itself (for example, Matt 18.8; 25.41). There is a problem of interpretation with regard to the positioning of this expression. The problem can be put simply: does eternal fire go with example or with punishment? In other words, is Jude saying that the burning of the cities is an example of how the wicked will be punished with eternal fire, or that the eternal burning of the cities is an example of how the wicked are going to be punished? Either of these interpretations is possible. Some translations follow the first interpretation, as, for example, Moffatt, “exhibited as a warning of the everlasting fire.” But more translations reflect the position taken by Good News Translation, “they suffer the punishment of eternal fire as a plain warning to all.” This relates this statement to the tradition that these cities continue to burn. Another possible translation model is “They undergo punishment by being burned with fire eternally (or, forever), as an example to warn other people what can happen to them.”

Quoted with permission from Arichea, Daniel C. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on The Letter from Jude. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1993. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .