(NOTE: This is an academic research article originally written in 2014 from a previous blog. There may have been updates to these findings since the time of writing which may warrant a future update at some point when I get the chance to get back to this.)
There has been much debate and criticism over the years in regard to the “Cities of the Plain” in Genesis in regards to the meaning of the narrative, their locations and their historicity. It has been one of the harder issues to defend apologetically and the object of much ridicule from Bible critics. From both sides, there have been those who insist on its factuality, those who will totally negate any real value of the narrative and a plethora of views somewhere in the middle. The scholarly work on the topic has been somewhat sparse in earlier times in terms of Biblical archaeology and critical research, however, in more recent times – through recent excavations and a deeper understanding of the culture and context of the Ancient Near East – it has become possible for us to better understand the Sodom narrative and also start to form some sort of coherent and informed position.
In this article I will attempt to show and analyze the various viewpoints on the Sodom narrative in the Bible by carefully examining the arguments on both sides. This analysis will take into account the various approaches to historiography and my reasons for my chosen approach. I will look at the present scholarly views on the literary and theological significance of the text in the overall narrative of redemption played out in the Bible. I will compare the scholarly views and findings on the location and archaeological evidence of Sodom. Finally, I will conclude by analysing the current state of excavations going on by Dr. Steven Collins at Tall el-Hamman and how it pertains to the state of affairs in scholarship to see what conclusions, if any, may be drawn at this time.
Charles R Pellegrino stated in his book, which gained some controversial notoriety,
“that several major Old Testament events that seem utterly fantastical to us today – among them the parting of Egyptian waters, the blotting out of the Sun, and pillars of fire in the sky – are based upon some very real kernels of truth. The rocks and the ruins tell us so. As one who remains to this day an agnostic (no good scientist can be an atheist, for in science we must question everything, even our own questions), all of this has come as a great surprise.”
In the following pages, we shall see if indeed there lay any surprises to our preconceived notions or perceptions of the story and its historicity.
Approach to Historiography
A Hermeneutic of Suspicion
Some critical historians employ a hermeneutic of suspicion, especially when approaching Biblical historiographies. However many of the reasons to validate this suspicion are mute arguments from silence rather than explicit evidences to the contrary. For example, prior to the findings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many critics could not believe an early dating of Isaiah because of the specific prophesies which were well fulfilled in the life of Jesus according to the Gospels. It was assumed to be the work of a later editor to create the perception of prophetic accuracy. However, after the discovery at Qumran, it was convincingly shown at the very least to be earlier than the time of Christ by well over 120 years.
“Historians are like prosecuting attorneys in that they can only reconstruct the past using the available evidence, and that their conclusions are based on what is most probable.”
[Hermeneutics – definition – the approach toward interpretation of a text. Biblical Hermeneutics is the study of the methodological principles of interpretation. It seeks to understand the intended meaning of Scripture by avoiding unnecessary allegorizing and symbolizing of passages and also understanding the context historically, grammatically, and culturally.]
To make arguments which bring into question the value of a biblical testimony from a lack of evidence stands on very weak ground as new discoveries may be still to come. We cannot dismiss the Biblical text just because the general possibility exists that it may not be reliable historiography. As with any other text, some plausibility must be granted to consider honestly the evidence and come to an informed decision. Consider,
“How much history, ancient or otherwise, would we “know” about if the verification principle were consistently applied to all testimony about it – for example, to the testimony of Julius Caesar about his invasion of Britain in 55-54 B.C., which we know about only because Caesar himself tells us of it? The answer is clearly “very little” – which is precisely why people who employ the verification principle, whether historians in general or historians of Israel in particular, only do so selectively, choosing their targets for rigorous scepticism very carefully.”
The Place of Archaeological Evidence
Charlesworth and Weaver, in their book “What has Archaeology to do with faith?” offer the viewpoint that if the Bible speaks of God as being active in history through certain people, places and events – then archaeologists should be able to find evidence of these to support this claim. So, the believer then finds themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place when the Biblical claim and the archaeological evidence don’t seem to match up or even contradict each other since the implication is that if the persons, places or events aren’t real – how can a faith which claims historicity hold any value? So then,
“one can see why the biblical material leads to, in fact demands, archaeological work. There are ancient people, places, and events that are the focal points of God’s work, and faith demands that we understand them as best we can, using every means at our disposal. Beyond that, it looks as if archaeology ought to be able to support these biblical claims.”
We must also recognize the appropriate weight to give to archaeology in this discussion. Recent work examining the Hebrew narratives by more liberal Biblical scholars has tended to focus on the creative art of the Bible. Combined with the late dates ascribed to it by some, the confidence of some scholars has been diminished in thinking that the texts really have anything at all to do with the “real” world of the past. This has resulted in the marginalization of the texts in efforts to answer questions about Israel’s past and the tendency to put greater weight on the findings of archaeology and to relegate the place of the Biblical narratives merely to the place of allegory or myth. It may seem that this poses an insurmountable threat to the large portion of evangelical scholarship which hinges on the historicity of the Bible to stake their faith claims. However, is this heavy dependence and weight on archaeological evidence justified?
“Archaeological remains (when this phrase is taken to exclude written testimony from the past) are themselves mute. They do not speak for themselves, they have no story to tell and no truth to communicate. It is archaeologists who speak about them, testifying to what that they have found and placing the finds within an interpretive framework that bestows upon them meaning and significance.”
Since we were not there, our access to the past is primarily through the testimony of others. Even if we dig up an ancient artifact, we are still dependent on testimony of others to figure out its significance, and so all testimony of the past is also interpretation of the past based on testimony. There is no such thing as the “objective spectator” or neutral observer, and so every historiography will contain elements of interpretation and the author’s worldview. It is important at this juncture to clarify the distinction between historiography and a chronicle. “Historians offer critical evaluation and critique, whereas chroniclers usually provide a description and leave it at that.”All historiography will therefore seek to organize, via selection and editing, the facts of the past in order to form some coherent pattern or story to bring out a particular end based in their general worldview. This is true not only of ‘religious’ historiography but also of ‘secular’ ones as well, as both subscribe to some sort of worldview which will influence their interpretations on the facts.
“As in a court of law, this evidence is open to interpretation, and this evidence can only lead to a conclusion based on probability, not absolute certainty. In other words, there is no way to “prove” anything about the past (if by “prove” one means to come to a conclusion that is as certain as a conclusion in chemistry or physics). Rather, one must determine what happened by weighing evidence.”
Simon and Schuster argue that the story of Lot and his wife was simply a myth devised to explain the natural rock-salt pillar formations found in that region. That it was a story in the category of folklore equivalent to those in England like the Witch of Wookey and Iceland of dwarves and trolls turning to stone to explain the curious lava formations. They compare the Sodom narrative with that of the legend of Atlantis, which might have had some kernel of historical memory, however – in their estimation – Sodom’s legend lacks any external verification. They claim that, “despite strenuous efforts by archaeologists and romantics alike, no trace at all has ever been found of the Biblical cities of the Vale of Siddim, either on the ground or under the waters of the Dead Sea. Sodom and Gomorrah, and Lot’s wife in her pillar of salt, remain forever petrified in the realm of legend.” They argue that the fact whether or not a historical place can or cannot be verified archaeologically doesn’t make any difference to its religious significance to devotees who believe citing the example of the Muslim mosque at the cave of Machpelah at Hebron, said to be the burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, this site cannot possibly be the Biblical Cave of Machpelah but this doesn’t seem to make the slightest difference to the religious convictions of those Muslims.
The struggle of some wrestling with the archaeological evidence or lack thereof has prompted them to offer a purely allegorical interpretation of the biblical story – that the authors of the Bible were not just witnesses of the events of God coming into history but were also part of its fabrication towards their theological ends. However, I find this position untenable for any real depth of faith. It produces a faith not based in reality, but rather one of fable and myth, lacking any real foundations as the very testimonies which this ‘faith’ is built is nothing more than mere fanciful constructs. These suspicions are often substantiated by highly critical work from minimalist points of view and hyperbolically over express the lack of ‘proofs’ and presence of contradictions, which is often based on older research or from only the critical side without the proper interplay of the responses to those criticisms.
As a result, to preserve their ‘faith’, some liberal scholars have resorted to this sort of figurative faith which I don’t believe is what the early church was founded on. This is not to say that there aren’t difficulties faced or unanswered questions, our knowledge is not complete on both sides of the argument. However, I don’t believe this to be the right response to present difficulties. The apostles and founding fathers did not go to excruciating martyrdom based on a figurative belief in the God who has entered history, but rather a firm belief that their faith was based in real historical events. This can be clearly seen in passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, and does not allow me to accept a solely allegorical stance.
A Holistic Approach
We must therefore employ a more holistic approach which takes into account the context, the literary value of the texts as a work of ‘creative literature’ as well as the archaeological evidences which can help attest to the historicity of the narratives. However, one must also realize that the Bible doesn’t necessarily fit snugly into either one of these modern categories alone. The way history and literature was done and approached in the ancient world was quite unlike our modern understandings and thus poses some hurdles to the modern reader.
“Biblical writers do not frequently express abstract ideas – concepts – in the sequential patterns which Western thinker, under the influence of Hellenistic culture, have come to expect. That is to say, they do not set out a proposition and explicate it systematically in the pattern of linear reasoning which is so familiar to modern readers… the biblical writings do not provide a biblical systematic theology: that is a construct of Hellenistic Christianity and its descendants. There is no overt biblical epistemology or sociology: that is the domain of Western philosophers and sociologists.”
This may jar some ‘scientific’ readers to think in this way, however, even the grounding belief of modern science depends on ideas and beliefs which are derived from a presupposition that the universe is rational and intelligible to be understood via scientific pursuits. The way people do science and what they do with its findings is dependent therefore on a larger reality than what science itself embraces or can ‘prove’. Arguably, the non-theologically motivated historian in the ancient world didn’t exist, every act of history to them was to be understood as the workings of the gods. In the ancient world even “natural” events were the result of divine activity. So objections to the Bible as source for knowledge of the past based on theological biases would also eliminate the vast majority of all else we could consider for sources of the past.
“The denial of supernatural causation by many of today’s historians means that any ancient document used in reconstructing a history that conforms to present-day standards needs to be “adjusted” by the modern historian to delete its non-empirical data and eliminate its supernatural bias. Such may be considered necessary in order to present ancient history to a modern reader, who will want to read history expressed in the context of his or her own cognitive environment, but it represents cultural imperialism.”
Myths played an important role in the Ancient Near East. They considered myths to offer explanations of how their world functioned and were perceived as historically actual. To the ancients, the gods were real and all reality was understood in relation to the divine – Israel was no exception.
“Myths establish and enclose the area in which human actions and experiences can be oriented. The stories they tell about deities are supposed to bring to light the meaningful structure of reality. Myths are always set in the past and they always refer to the present. What they relate about the past is supposed to shed light on the present.”
The functions of myth in the ancient world therefore is important to a proper appreciation of Biblical narratives and their value as it helps us to understand the cultural context in which these narratives would have been read. These narratives were undoubtedly meant to convey history, but beyond that they were also meant to convey theological message.
“To put it another way, the purpose of the storyteller evidently went beyond the purely informative… He aimed at the formative, at giving theological and sociological justification for a particular historical situation which obtained much later than the original setting of the stories. He intended to form – to mould – the minds and attitudes of his readers, leading them in a certain direction.”
If we are to respect the texts, we must recognize the cognitive environment of the ancient world and not try to put ancient historiography in modern categories by imposing our modern worldviews, sensibilities and categories. Furthermore, it is also unreasonable to discredit a testimony solely based on the limit of personal experience for what is possible. There was a time when landing humans on the moon would have been an impossible conception, much less a reality. “Even the common human experience, then – insofar as we can speak of such a phenomenon – clearly cannot be the arbiter of what is possible in history. Common human experience is time-conditioned human experience – a snapshot of reality as experienced by many people at one point only in the historical continuum.” This appeal to a “common human experience” is actually nothing more than a rhetorical device which is intended to lose the individual historian in the crowd and disguise that what is being appealed to is the writer’s own individual experience We therefore cannot base history solely on predictability or the mere fact that we have not personally experienced the event which may have been a once in history occurrence.
Historiography then can be thought of in terms of a portrait, in one sense a fabrication, akin to paint on a canvas placed skilfully by an artist. Like a portrait, it can accurately represent the subject the artist is trying to portray, however it would be ridiculous to subject it to certain scientific tests and enquiries which would be inappropriate. What some Biblical scholars and historians appear to miss is the difference between ‘fictionality’ in the sense of artistry or craft – which is about how the representation is achieved – and fiction in the sense of genre – which is about what is represented. So then, “historians do not have the freedom to impose just any plot structure on a given set of individual “facts,” any more than portrait artists have the freedom to impose any facial structure they please on the facial features (“facts”) of their subject.”
With this in mind we can look at some of the literary critiques of the narrative. Attempts to analyse it according to the documentary hypothesis have failed to stand up for the most part as the far greater burden of proof falls to it in order to identify sources for fragments and also show how these fragments belonged to separate continuous hypothetical narratives. The documentary approach is insufficient in that it can sometimes see the current text as an awkward joining or haphazard stitching together of different continuous documents without fully appreciating the smoothness of the present form of the patriarchal narrative which shows source criticism as unnecessary for understanding what the texts has to offer.
[Documentary Hypothesis – a theory which challenged the original authorship traditionally ascribed to Scriptures and attempted to separate the Old Testament texts into 4 theoretical sources – J,E,D and P – based on grammatical and literary analysis of patterns and motifs. This theory, while useful to critical textual scholarship, was widely rejected for several reasons.
Genesis 19:30-38, the incestuous story of Lot’s daughters, is the subject of much criticism from sceptics and those opposed to the Bible as a source of any value. At first it is a wonder why the biblical author(s) would even include such a repulsive story at the end of the Sodom narrative. There is a perhaps though a nuance that is lost to the reader who doesn’t make a careful study of the text though. Moab is the name of a geographical area which antedates the creation story of Lot and his daughters. We know from elsewhere in the OT that the Israelites’ ancestral figures were commonly closely associated to place names. For example, the sons of Noah, whose names are possibly merely geographical designations – Cush means Ethiopia and Mizraim means Egypt. These sorts of examples of progenitors who are known as eponymous ancestors is actually quite frequent and something of peculiar quality to note. Perhaps there is more to the meaning behind the text than only what lays at a surface level. This of course does not negate the possibility that they were actual individuals also though.
With Moab, the etymology – although not clear – seems to suggest that the name implies the rise of the people as a result of an incestuous union. Similarly, Ammon can be taken to mean from the Semitic languages as “blood relatives”, concluding that these people owed their origin to the union of a father with his own daughter. Therefore, some have postulated that the story was coined to make fun of the Moabites and Ammonites who had harassed Israel for some time and earned their hatred. Attributing this origin story to Moab and Ammon would put a shameful sin on their enemies. However, though this may be possible, it is seriously doubted by scholars. It is proposed that the most likely explanation is that the story originated among the Moabites and Ammonites themselves. From their point of view the action of the women was heroic in that it helped to keep the bloodline pure as racial purity it seems was a big value to them.
It is interesting though to note in this story that the women, as suggested by the context, seemed to have felt that the whole world was destroyed and that it was this extreme desperation that led them to take their vile course of actions in order to secure a lineage. So, one must ask, what kind of scale event would cause them to have such an extreme reaction? This begs the question as to the nature of the destruction of Sodom that they had just witnessed to elicit such a response of dread. Surely it could not have been some smaller natural disaster or conquest as some have theorized but perhaps something more of apocalyptic proportions?
Regarding the theological significance of the text, Walter Brueggemann rightly points out in regards to the Sodom narrative, that we must carefully interpret the text. “It easily lends itself to conclusions which are wooden, mechanical, and concrete-operational about the reality of God. Unless interpreted carefully, this passage will be taken as support for mistaken theological notions that are uncritical and destructive. The most obvious dangers of perverse interpretation relate to… stylized judgment, numerical calculation, and a simplistic moralizing on homosexuality – are brought together according to popular understandings, the text will yield a teaching remote from the gospel.”
The Narrative of Redemption
Genesis 19:29 has been singled out by many as the verse which is the main point of this narrative and without it the story of Lot in Sodom might well seem out of place. However, we are brought back to the point of remembering Abraham at verse 29. As the story unfolds, “that Abraham has overestimated the righteousness of Sodom, and underestimated the justice and mercy of Yahweh… the narrator in his sequel wants to tell us that not a soul in Sodom – including Lot – was righteous, and but for Yahweh’s mercy neither Lot, his wife, nor his daughters would have been spared.” The story then is brought back to focus on God’s redemptive purposes and serves functionally within the narrative of Israel’s beginning to contrast God’s right to judgment and His preservation of a remnant.
To cut out the story of Sodom and dissect it separate from that context would not be fair to the intention of the author(s). The story of Sodom and Gomorrah really belongs within the overall narrative of Abraham and his coming to faith in the God who has calls him out of the land and makes a promise to him. Sodom fits in on the way as perhaps one of the hallmarks that would have defined his development to a matured faith –from one who frequently doubted to one who trusted God enough to willingly sacrifice his son, which itself reminds us of another redemption narrative to come. This progression does not happen overnight and Sodom’s narrative fits into the unfolding of that journey where God brings him to maturity of his faith.
The Sin of Sodom
In discerning the reason for the destruction of the cities, it is too simplistic an interpretation to do the narrative justice to reduce it only to judgment on sexual perversion. “In the accounts concerning Sodom and [Gomorrah] the destruction is clearly in some way a punishment of the citizens for the mistreatment of the [outsiders] living in their midst.” In Ezekiel 16:44-58 in the charge brought against Israel compared with Sodom in verse 47 is, “Not only did you walk in their ways and do according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways.” Interestingly, what is listed in Ezekiel as Sodom’s sins are pride, arrogance, excess of food, prosperous ease and not helping the poor and it is for this that the threat of judgment being poured out is laid. In Ezekiel, this is what makes Jerusalem and Judah’s sins surpass that of Sodom. This makes for quite a poignant rebuke which resonates to us today, to those who live in prideful excess without concern for the poor. It is easy for some to distance themselves from this story and say, “Oh – that’s just for those evil Sodomites who were sexually perverse” – but when have we ever heard a sermon from this text talking about the sin of omission of our responsibilities as Christians to care for the least of these? Could we also be exceeding their corruption through our apathy?
The function of this text is to argue that God punishes wickedness, but that he also respects individual innocence in the midst of mass guilt, so that it is even possible that the guilty may be saved because of the innocent. Mass as well as individual guilt is punished, but not at the price of justice.”
Sodom as a Prototype
The memorable description of the destruction of Sodom serves as a prototypical tradition, undoubtedly any reference to Divine judgment by fire brings it up in the minds of readers and it is referred to numerous times throughout the Bible to illustrate various theological points. The use of allusion results in transformation, or a legitimate skewing characteristic of all literature which reuses previous literature. Here lies the difficulty in distinguishing between aspects of allusion which provide hints both for the further understanding and reconstruction of an original event/story alluded to, and aspects of allusion which amount to transformation, and which are inferential. Part of the task of interpretation is discerning what is mere allusion and what is transformation.
The reuse of the story throughout the Bible illustrates well this use of history or historical stories to teach or bring out an intended theological point. Some other places it is used in the OT are in Lamentations 4:6, Deuteronomy 29:22-25, Isaiah 1:7-11, Hosea 11:8, Jeremiah 49:18, and Zephaniah 2:9. Similarly, the Sodom narrative shows up used in early Christian literature both in the New Testament and also in writings from the Patristic period showing the influence of the text in thought about theology, divine judgment and other such themes. Furthermore, the lack of resolution to the dialogue in chapter 18 between Abraham and Yahweh leaves a silence where the audience is left to answer for itself the questions, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” and “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Which in the wake of Sodom’s epic destruction – perhaps confronts the reader with the justice of God – that in the face of a holy and righteous God, none would stand.
Archaeology and Historicity
With regards to the relationship between theology and archaeology, Charlesworth and Weaver have this to say, “if theology is to be relevant, it must be done with open eyes. It must take into account the issues that the areas of study such as archaeology raise for us.”There has been quite a bit of skepticism over the historicity of the Biblical account of Sodom, even in his Anchor Bible Dictionary, M.J. Mulder says, “Two legendary cities from prehistoric Israel in the neighbourhood of the Dead Sea…it is highly uncertain, if not improbable, that the vanished cities of the Pentapolis will ever be recovered” For a long time the archaeological case for Sodom did not look too convincing. Archaeology to some has become an apologetic strategy with the concern to demonstrate the correlation of archaeological evidence and the reliability of the Bible. “To state it bluntly, the goal is to prove the Bible is factually correct. This factuality in itself would not produce faith, but if the biblical narrative were historically accurate, there would be grounds for the acceptance of the Bible.”
Traditional View on Sodom’s Archaeology
The scholarly landscape of views on Sodom is very diverse with much being debated, including the nature of destruction, its existence and dating. A large part of the archaeological debate revolves around the location of Sodom. “The valley” is traditionally thought to be referring to a deep depression below sea level from the lower end of the Sea of Galilee southward to the Gulf of Aqaba which includes the Dead Sea region and Jordan Valley. Five archaeological sites were located there in relation to the five “Cities of the Plain” mentioned in Genesis 14:1–2 (Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela, or Zoar), they are Bab edh-Dhra, Numeira, Safi, Feifa, and Hanazir. William F. Albright is credited with the first discovery in 1924 and it was first excavated by Paul W. Lapp in 1965. Archaeologists W.E. Rast and T. Schaub found Numeira in 1973 and later the other three sites. They excavated Bab edh-Dhra and its large cemetery from 1975 to 1979 which they dated as an Early Bronze site from about 3300-2000 B.C. Safi was identified as Zoar in the Madaba Map which was found inside an early Byzantine church. Rast and Schaub suggested that these sites were the five “Cities of the Plain” with Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira as the famous Sodom and Gomorrah respectively.
“Subsequent excavations at Numeira, 13 km (8 mi) south of Bab edh-Dhra, have verified its close affinity with Bab edh-Dhra. Follow-up work at the other three sites, Safi, Feifa and Khanazir, however, has not been as rewarding.”Though at that point the locations of the other three cities remained elusive, Rast and Schaub considered the evidence for Bab ehd-Dhra and Numeira as related to the “Cities of the Plain” as inescapable. It was observed that there may be a linguistic connection between Numeira and Gomorrah as many ancient names are preserved in their modern Arabic names. Also, it was argued that the cities were “of” the plain – meaning having a close association to them but not necessarily “in” the plain.
In 1974, a remarkable discovery was found at Tell Mardikh by Dr. Paolo Matthiae and Dr. Giovanni Pettinato of over 17,000 tablets from the site which come from approximately 2,300 BCE and include a wide variety of information about the region and time. They mention the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah as well as the other “Cities of the Plain” (Admah, Zeboiim and Zoar) in the same sequence as Genesis 14, stating that Zoar was Bela. Furthermore, the paleobotanic evidence seems to be in the favour of these southern sites for the “Cities of the Plain” as according to Genesis 13:10 they were well watered and the preliminary studies at Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira showed a rich diversity of crops, and that the area was prosperous and well populated at the time.Evidence for the cities’ fortifications were also found and published by Schaub and Rast from various excavations which seem to match what would be expected from the Biblical record. Also, the Bible tells of an attack on the “Cities of the Plain” by four Mesopotamian kings in Genesis 14 before the final destruction described in chapter 19. At both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira there is evidence for two destructions which seemed to correlate to the Biblical testimony. The evidence at Numeira showed that it was violently destroyed at the end of the Early Bronze III period and a thick layer of burnt debris can be found in almost every area excavated.
“Under the topsoil (desert pavement) and a naturally deposited windblown sandy soil, the entire area was covered by the ashy debris of the final destruction of the town, up to 0.40 m in depth. This ash contained fragments of wooden beams that had supported the roofs of the dwellings and lay immediately over the latest occupational layer within each room, sealing the material beneath it. Not infrequently there was mudbrick detritus over the ash, which had resulted from the collapse of the mudbrick superstructures after the final.”
There is the presence of natural gas, sulphur, asphalt and petroleum in the region and some have theorized that a great earthquake and perhaps lightning igniting the petroleum would have been the cause for the conflagration to befall Sodom and the surrounding communities.Genesis 19:24 uses the Hebrew word גָּפְרִ֣ית (goprit), most likely derived from an Akkadian word, and is translated ‘brimstone’ in some Bibles but taken by some to mean a sulphurous oil (black sulphur). So the theory was, that what fell on Sodom was a burning petroleum product – which would seem to correlate with the aforementioned theory of the destruction via the release and ignition of petroleum products from the fault line.
“These combustible materials could have been forced from the earth by subterranean pressure brought about by an earthquake resulting from the shifting of the bounding faults… It is significant to note that both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira lie at the edge of the plain, exactly on the eastern fault line!”
This theory seems to be corroborated by the work of geologist Jack Donahue who found various evidences of a sizeable earthquake at the sites around that time. “It is suggested here that the tower collapse and extensive burn layers over the site were caused by an earthquake generated by fault movement.”
There is also evidence that the residences in Numeira fled in haste and made efforts to barricade their doorways against the damage. Furthermore, the evidence of the burnt cemetery at Bab edh-Dhra also seemed to question the possibility of a destruction by a conqueror as no parallels to such an act are known. It would seem to be case closed on Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira being the sites of Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah.
A modern shift in views for the location of Sodom
However, in recent times that view has been shifting even in light of what may be considered as ‘strong’ evidence to Bab edh-Dhra being Sodom, some still do challenge it, both within the realms of critical and Biblical archaeological scholarship. An earlier theory was that the sites were covered under the water of the Dead Sea. Recently, the water levels have been lowered due to the hydraulic works in the Jordan uncovering the southern area and enabling archaeologists to examine the proposed sites. They concluded that the nature of the ground was unfit for the establishment of towns and no signs were found of previous settlements there. Additionally, there were some perceived discrepancies even early on. The dating for destruction of the sites seemed to be off by about 230-280 years for what some believe to be the archaeological and Biblical dating. However, the archaeological dating for the end of the Early Bronze III period cannot be definitively determined as of yet. Dating for these periods is usually determined by figuring out synchronisms to a fixed known point in history by which the dates can be calculated relatively and currently no such synchronisms exist for the Early Bronze III period. At best, the dates are only known to within 200 years as the dividing of the Early Bronze III and IV periods are strictly an educated guess. Therefore, the proposed Biblical date for the destruction of Bab edh-Dhra, if it is Sodom, of ca. 2070 BC could be entirely possible.
Tall el-Hammam as Sodom – Dr. Steven Collins
Dr. Steven Collins is currently carrying out an excavation at Tall el-Hammam north of the Dead Sea that he believes to be the real Sodom. This is quite the exciting dig project for numerous reasons and a big find, both figuratively and literally, the lower tall measuring over 40 acres surrounded by a four meter wide city wall with towers. Collins’ placement of Sodom in the north of the Dead Sea goes contrary to the previous acceptance of Bab edh-Dhra in the south as Sodom, and as expected, is met with a fair bit of push back from the scholarly community for those advocating a southern placement. Some argue that it is actually the Biblical site for Abel Shittim, and even Gary Byers who worked on the Tall el-Hammam dig site says it is a possibility. Dr. Collins though makes a very compelling argument with thorough rebuttals to his critics.
[Image from – http://www.biblearchaeology.org – “TeHEP dig director, Dr. Steve Collins, and the author standing on top of what remains of the Early Bronze city wall. Notice the wall’s full width and the Early Bronze gateway behind and to the left of Collins. “Dirt” in the foreground is actually the base of the wall’s mudbrick superstructure. Remains of the Middle Bronze city wall are seen on the far left.”]
In his response to Dr. Bryant G. Wood’s critique, Collins argues step-by-step his northern placement of Sodom over the arguments for a southern one offered by Wood and others. Collins says in his published journal at Trinity Southwest University that,
“I have interacted with a significant number of leading scholars possessing both archaeological and geographical expertise in the Levantine sphere, and not one of them has been able to mount a substantive counter argument against the “northern Sodom” view. In fact, most have freely admitted that the northern view, as I have presented it, is superior to the southern view in most respects—all this coming from scholars who have previously bowed to the southern hypothesis, mostly for lack of a better alternative.”
Collins criticizes Wood for ignoring what he sees as the definitive Biblical text on the geography of the “Cities of the Plain”, Genesis 13:1-12, and favouring instead Rast’s minimizing of the text – citing that Rast never provided a detailed exegesis of Genesis 13, he was biased already towards Bab edh-Dhra as Sodom since he was excavating it, he did not believe in the historicity of Abraham or Lot or the story of divine destruction and he believed the story to be an etiological legend. “For Rast to pass over Genesis 13:1-12 in favor of what he calls “more compelling references in other texts” clearly demonstrates his hermeneutical ineptitude in this regard…” says Collins. He continues that Wood’s argument using Genesis 10:19 and Genesis 14:3 is clearly non sequitur, pointing out that the reference to the Valley of Siddim (the Salt Sea) doesn’t justify a jump to the southern basin of the Dead Sea, and also that the presence of tar pits could just as easily be located at the north end. He then lays out his exegesis of Genesis 13 and his use of the word “kikkar” as describing the circular disk of the northern Jordanian valley’s circular plain. His argument is thorough and compelling and he sites some scholars who agree with his placement according to his exegesis such as A.F. Rainey (historical geographer), J.D. Tabor (biblical scholar and editor of the Transparent English Version of the Bible), and professors A. Mazar and T. Daughtrey.
[Image from – http://www.biblearchaeology.org – “Map of the southern Jordan River Valley, the area known as the kikkar (“the plain of the Jordan” – Gn 13:10) in the Hebrew Bible. Tall el-Hammam is number 8 on the map, a site which many scholars have suggested was Abel Shittim in the time of Moses and the TeHEP thesis is that the site might have been Sodom in Abraham’s time). Note that the sites on the east side are a good distance from the Jordan River and close to the Jordan mountain range, east of the Jordan River Valley – suggesting a river flooding problem and the ancient roadway circling wide along the edge of eastern mountains. It would have been from these mountains that Balaam looked down on the Israelites and tried to curse them (Nu 22-24) and it was to these mountains that Moses ascended up to Mount Nebo and died (Dt 34).” Credit: Trinity Southwest Seminary]
Collins also points out numerous assumptions he argues that Wood has to make for his southern placement of Sodom to fit such as; that goprit means “sulphurous oil” though the semantic range is much wider, that the fiery destruction came up from the earth then came down on Sodom when the text simply states that it rained down from out of the heavens, that there is no river in the southern Dead sea area as what would be required by Genesis 13:10, that the well-watered area referred to is certainly the southern area when the northern area was and still is better farmland. Collins then argues for his reconfiguration of the dating for the various ages, placing the Sodom narrative instead of in the Intermediate Bronze Age to within the Middle Bronze Age which he dates from 1550-2000 BCE. Collins continues his systematic rebuttal to Wood with his arguments according to the stratigraphic and architectural evidence as well as the dates for the destruction of the southern sites. Collins’ arguments are further affirmed by another thorough journal written by Dr. Craig Olson, entitled “Which Site is Sodom? A Comparison of Bab edh-Dhra and Tall el-Hammam”, where Olson goes through the various points comparing Bab edh-Dhra and Tall el-Hammam to see how they stack up against each other. He concludes,
As the evidence stands today, it appears that Tall el-Hammam is by far the most likely site for biblical Sodom. In the four categories in this paper, [Tall el-Hammam] clearly won the Text, and Tall/Tell challenges. And any advantage [Bab edh-Dhra] may have gained in the Tradition category was balanced out with a win for [Tall el-Hammam] in the Timeframe test. Unless and until a more likely site for Sodom is discovered, the most likely site for biblical Sodom is [Tall el-Hammam].”
Dr. Eugene H. Merrill, Old Testament scholar who served as a distinguished professor of OT at Dallas Theological Seminary, also offered his critique of Collins’ work in the Autumn 2012 issue of Artifax magazine where he presents his arguments against Tall el-Hammam as Sodom. Collins offered an equally thorough point-by-point response to Merrill’s critique in his journal published to the Biblical Research Bulletin entitled, “Tall el-Hammam is Still Sodom: Critical Data-Sets Cast Serious Doubt on E.H. Merrill’s Chronological Analysis”. Dr. Collins continues to rise to the occasion of his critics on this issue, offering thorough and well written defences of his findings and theory. He has certainly won over quite a few scholars, and even the likes of E.H. Cline from National Geographic, who states that to him there is no particular reason to maintain that Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira are definitely Sodom and Gomorrah and expressing some optimism for Collins’ current excavation project.
“Steven Collins… rejects the identification of Sodom and Gomorrah with Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira and suggests instead that biblical Sodom is located at a site named Tall el-Hammam in Jordan, which he is currently excavating….Thus, the location, and indeed the very existence, of Sodom and Gomorrah remains a mystery. It may be that a team of archaeologists, such as the one led by Collins, will definitively locate the cities. Until then, we can only speculate on the additional hypotheses that will be suggested in the meantime.”
After a careful review of the arguments, I lean a bit more towards Collins’ arguments with an interest in seeing what his current projects yield. It seems like we will have to continue watching this drama as it unfolds and more evidence is unearthed before a ‘definitive’ conclusion, if ever, can be drawn. However, we can see through this brief comparative study of the cases how much archaeology can change in relation to ‘confirming’ a particular historiography. This aspect of constant evolution of data and available ‘proof’ must be taken into consideration when giving weight to archaeology as the determining factor for the historicity of a Biblical text. As we can see with Sodom, where the evidence before Albright’s findings were nonexistent and Sodom was a point of ridicule for Bible ciritcs, then as of the 1970s to 1990s seemed to be overwhelmingly in favour of Bab edh-Dhra but now – with the turn of discoveries – seemingly is taking a new direction.
After all this though, we can see that the issue is not as straight cut as some may wish it to be. However, we cannot in all fairness dismiss the narrative altogether as well. Though details of locations and dates are still debated, it seems convincing that somewhere at sometime, Sodom and Gomorrah did exist as a part of history and arguably that they suffered some sort of catastrophic destruction. Also, we can see from the literary analysis that the narratives have intrinsic worth to us theologically in understanding the overall narrative of scriptures as well as understanding the world of the Ancient Near East.
Finally, there are deeper questions to consider about the implications of the historicity of the Bible, such as, does the past have inherent meaning? Is the narrative shape of life merely an illusion – the result of the creativity of historians from random, isolated events which they have skilfully shaped together? Or, does life actually have an intrinsic narrative? Does all of history tell a story? And if so, who’s story is it? “Historical events may reveal something of God and His purposes, but these same revelatory events also conceal the plans and purposes of God. What is only required is faith; faith to believe that God is at work, and faith to believe that all is under His control.”
Video of Collins presenting some of his findings for your consideration… This will be an interesting story to follow up with and see if indeed this site is confirmed in the long run.
 Pellegrino, Return to Sodom and Gomorrah, pg 6  Heath, Doing Church History, pg 15  A Biblical History of Israel, pg 55  Charlesworth, What Has Archaeology to Do with Faith?, pg 77  Charlesworth, What Has Archaeology to Do with Faith?, pg 80  Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, pg 5  Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, pg 46  Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, pg 37  Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, pg 38  Heath, Doing Church History – 2008, pg 16  Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, pg 68  Heath, Doing Church History, pg 54  Magnusson, Archaeology of the Bible, pg 41  Magnusson, Archaeology of the Bible, pg 42  Fields, Sodom and Gomorrah, pgs 13-14  Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, pg 39  Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought, pg 220-221.  Assmann, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, 112  Fields, Sodom and Gomorrah, pg 15  Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, pgs 71-72  Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, pgs 71-72  Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, pgs 85-86  Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, pg 87  Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pg 46  Provan, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pg 50  Studies on the book of Genesis, pg 85  Studies on the book of Genesis, pg 85  Studies on the book of Genesis, pg 85-87  Brueggemann, Genesis Interpretation, pg 163  Davies, The World of Genesis, pg 143  Fields, Sodom and Gomorrah, pg 134  Ezekiel 16:47 ESV  Loader, A Tale of Two Cities, pgs 46-47  Fields, Sodom and Gomorrah, pg 137  Fields, Sodom and Gomorrah, pg 156  Genesis 18:23b ESV  Genesis 18:25b ESV  Charlesworth, What Has Archaeology to Do with Faith?, pg 76  Mulder, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, pgs 99- 102  Charlesworth, What Has Archaeology to Do with Faith?, pg 82  Rast, Survey of the Southeastern Plain of the Dead Sea, 5-53, 17-185  Báez-Camargo, Archaeological Commentary on the Bible, pgs 12-13  Wood, Discovery of the Sin Cities, online  Wood, Discovery of the Sin Cities, online  Wilson, EBLA: Its impact on Bible Records, online  McCreery, The Southeastern Dead Sea Plain, pg 168  Coogan, Bulletin of the American Schools, pg 76  Báez-Camargo, Archaeological Commentary on the Bible, pgs 18-19  Wood, Discovery of the Sin Cities, online  Wood, Discovery of the Sin Cities, online  Donahue, Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, pg 139  Wood, Discovery of the Sin Cities, online  Byers, Tall El-Hammam 2008, online  Byers, Tall El-Hammam 2008, online  Collins, A Response to Bryant G. Wood’s Critique, pg 1  Collins, A Response to Bryant G. Wood’s Critique, pg 6  Collins, A Response to Bryant G. Wood’s Critique, pgs 7-17  Collins, A Response to Bryant G. Wood’s Critique, pgs 23-24  Collins, A Response to Bryant G. Wood’s Critique, pgs 24-27  Olson, Which Site is Sodom?, pg 16  Merrill, Texts, Talls, and Old Testament Chronology, pgs 1-5  Collins, Tall el-Hammam is Still Sodom, pgs 1-26  Cline, From Eden to Exile, pgs 59-60  Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, pg 81  Heath, Doing Church History, pg 43
- Pellegrino, Charles. “Return to Sodom and Gomorrah: Bible Stories from Achaeologists”. 1st edition. Toronto: Random House, Inc., 1994
- Heath, Gordon L. “Doing Church History: A User-friendly Introduction to Researching the History of Christianity”. Toronto: Clements Publishing, 2008.
- Provan, Ian et al., “A Biblical History of Israel”. 1st edition. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.
- Charlesworth, James H. and Walter P. Weaver. “What Has Archaeology to Do with Faith?”. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.
- Magnusson, Magnus. “Archaeology of the Bible”. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.
- Fields, Weston W. “Sodom and Gomorrah: History and Motif in Biblical Narrative”. Edited by David J.A. Clines and Philip R. Davies. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 231. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.
- Walton, John H. “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible”. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006.
- Assmann, Jan. “The Search for God in Ancient Egypt”. Translated by David Lorton. 1st edition. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001.
- Longman, Tremper and Raymond B. Dillard. “An Introduction to the Old Testament”. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.
- Brueggemann, Walter. “Genesis Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching”. Lousisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010.
- Davies, Philip R. and David J.A. Clines. “The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives”. Volume 257 of Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series. London: A&C Black, 1998.
- Loader, J.A. “A Tale of Two Cities: Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament, Early Jewish and Early Christian Traditions”. Edited by TJ. Baarda and A.S. van der Woude. Kampen: J.H. Kok Publishing House, 1990.
- Mulder, M.J. “The Anchor Bible Dictionary”. Sodom and Gomorrah. Edited by D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
- Rast, W.E. and Schaub, R.T. “Survey of the Southeastern Plain of the Dead Sea”. Annual of the Department of Antiquites, Jordan 19. 1974.
- Báez-Camargo, Gonzalo. “Archaeological Commentary on the Bible”. Translated by American Bible Society 1984. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984.
- Wood, Bryant G. “Discovery of the Sin Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah”. Associates for Biblical Research. April 16, 2008. Online: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/04/The-Discovery-of-the-Sin-Cities-of-Sodom-and-Gomorrah.aspx
- Wilson, Clifford. “EBLA: Its impact on Bible Records”. Institute for Creation Research: Acts & Facts. 1977. Online: http://www.icr.org/article/ebla-its-impact-bible-records/
- McCreery, D.W. “The Southeastern Dead Sea Plain Expedition: An Interim Report of the 1977 Season”. Edited by W.E. Rast and R.T. Schaub. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 46. Cambridge, MA: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1981.
- Coogan, M.D. “Numeira 1981”. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 255. Cambridge, MA: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1984.
- Donahue, J. “Hydrologic and Topographic Change During and After Early Bronze Occupation at Bab edh-Dhra”. Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan 2. Edited by A. Hadidi. Amman: Department of Antiquities, 1985.
- Byers, Gary. “Tall El-Hammam 2008: A Personal Perspective”. Associates for Biblical Research. Jan 12, 2009. Online: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/01/Tall-el-Hammam-2008-A-Personal-Perspective.aspx
- Collins, Steven. “A Response to Bryant G. Wood’s Critique of Collins’ Northern Sodom Theory”. Biblical Research Bulletin. Volume VII, Number 7. Albuquerque, NM: The Academic Journal of Trinity Southwest University. 2007.
- Olson, Craig. “Which Site is Sodom? A Comparison of Bab edh-Dhra and Tall el-Hammam”. Biblical Research Bulletin. Volume XIV, Number 1. Albuquerque, NM: The Academic Journal of Trinity Southwest University. 2014.
- Merrill, E.H. “Texts, Talls, and Old Testament Chronology: Tall el-Hammam as a Case Study”. New Brighton, MN: Artifax Magazine: Autumn 2012.
- Collins, Steven. “Tall el-Hammam is Still Sodom: Critical Data-Sets Cast Serious Doubt on E.H. Merrill’s Chronological Analysis”. Biblical Research Bulletin. Volume VII, Number 7. Albuquerque, NM: The Academic Journal of Trinity Southwest University. 2007.
- Cline, E.H. “From Eden to Exile”. Washington DC: National Geographic, 2007.