Sodom and Gomorrah
Categories: Abraham and Sarah, Old Testament
In reading the accounts of Sodom and Gomorrah, I’ve been wondering if scholars have found any traces of these cities. What do they think happened to them?
There is little extra-Biblical information attesting to the existence of these cities, though it’s not for a lack of trying. Many scholars argue for biblical accuracy of the account and have looked long and hard for historical evidence. Unfortunately, most of what is known is based on conjecture and potential connections to the cities. For example, legend has it that there were 13 cities in that region, Sodom being one of them. Certain salt formations and ruins along the western part of the Dead Sea have been speculated to be the remains of the city. One scholar, Archibald Sayce, claims to have found an Akkadian poem that describes the destruction of a city in a fiery rain. The city is not named, and the poem has not been verified.
In 1976, another scholar, Giovanni Pettinato, reported that he had found a cuneiform tablet from a dig in Ebla (in Syria) that listed five cities on a plain. Sodom and Gomorrah were among them. Others, however, have noted that the location of these cities was in northern Syria and nowhere near the Dead Sea, a site mentioned by Josephus (a first century historian) as being close to Sodom.
A promising option evolved with the excavation of the city Bab edh-Dhra, which was excavated from 1965-73. Located near the Dead Sea, this ancient city showed traces of burning and sulfur. Additionally, scholars discovered four other nearby cities that had been destroyed. Buoyed by the magic number of five cities clustered together, all destroyed by natural disasters, many scholars were satisfied that this was the site. Yet, this disaster might have occurred 500 years before Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, which likely occurred shortly before the birth of Isaac, around the 20th century BCE. While it is true that dating of ancient events is also somewhat speculative, it’s enough to derail many scholars from wholeheartedly embracing this development.
Another choice emerged from the Tell el Hammeh dig in 2006. This city is northeast of the Dead Sea and bears some resemblance to the description of Sodom as biblically stated. An ash layer that includes human bone and desert glass suggests some cataclysmic event. But, again, the dates cannot be verified.
Yet, most scholars prefer the southern location. This is based somewhat on the geographical fact that five rivers flowed into the Dead Sea along the southern portion. It would have been logical that an ancient city might have developed along each stream. Destruction by fire also has some geographical support. The southern part of the Dead Sea is riddled with areas of asphalt and sulfur. The Greeks even referred to this sea as Lake Asphaltites, the name known to Josephus.
Likewise, scholars have a hard time answering the question, “What happened?” Volcanic activity has been ruled out. The most likely cataclysmic event would have been a massive earthquake, but an asteroid hit theory has some followers as well. Chapter 14 states that there were tar pits in this area. Tar pits are produced by the oxidation of oil deposits in the earth. That could lead to a tremendous build-up of gases (possibly methane) beneath the earth’s surface. An earthquake could easily have released those gases high into the air, along with sulfur deposits. Such a combination could have been highly flammable and could have spontaneously ignited. The result could have been burning sulfur that rained down upon the earth. From his location in Mamre, Abraham would have been able to see the rising smoke from a distance of roughly ten miles away.
Some scholars continue speculating by claiming that the entire area was totally consumed by this conflagration. The Dead Sea might have been very low at the time; but eventually the area could have been completely inundated by the spreading waters as the Dead Sea rose to higher levels. Some of this is based on recent discoveries that show that the Dead Sea is really comprised of two basins, a deep northern one and a very shallow southern one. It is the southern one, they say, that holds the secrets of the cities of the plain.
And for some scholars, such archeological evidence is good enough to support the biblical version of events. Others are less sure and look forward to the discovery of more data. What scholars do agree upon is that if these cities existed, they were probably destroyed by some profound natural event.