THE STONES CRY OUT
From the book by the same name
Sodom and Gomorrah
Salty Story or Sinful Cities?
The Bible, unlike other religious literature of the world, is not centered in a series of moral, spiritual, and liturgical teachings, but in the story of a people who lived at a certain time and place. Biblical faith is the knowledge of life's meaning in the light of what God did in a particular history. Thus the Bible cannot be understood unless the history it relates is taken seriously. Knowledge of biblical history is essential to the understanding of biblical faith. If the nature of such periods is to be properly understood, and the biblical events fitted into their original context in ancient history as a whole, the original background to the biblical material must be recovered with the aid of archaeology. 1
— G. Ernest Wright
The Bible records that in the time of Abraham, a pentapolis (a group of five cities) stretched along a well-watered plain in the southern portion of the Jordan Valley (Genesis 13:10-11).
In one of the Bible's most memorable accounts, we read that a cataclysmic destruction overthrew two of these cities-—-Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24-29). According to the Bible, so wicked were the inhabitants (Genesis 18:20; 19:1-13) that a supernatural conflagration of "fire and brimstone" was sent by God in judgment. As a result, the cities' reputation as "sin cities" became a byword in the Bible; the prophets and Jesus often using the phrase "like Sodom and Gomorrah" in warnings of divine punishment. The infamy of these cities persists even through today as preserved in our English word sodomy.
Skepticism of the Scholars
For many Bible scholars and archaeologists the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is just that-—a story. The most critical of Bible scholars, such as Theodor Gaster, called it a "purely mythical tale." To most critical scholars it is a "remarkable origin-story" created by late Israelite storytellers to communicate theological and social concerns, not to preserve the memory of historical places and events. Other scholars say there is a kernel of historicity within the larger substance of late literary tradition. It is not entirely fiction, but a "fragment of local recollection," taken over by the Israelites and embellished by imagination. Thus, the story incorporates a pre-Israelite, extrabiblical explanation from those in the region for its environmental degeneration and military disturbances.
Some scientific attempts to validate the historical event have been inconsistent in their treatment of the biblical and archaeological evidence. In one recent book 2 two geologists argue that a massive earthquake (more than 7.0 on the Richter scale) occurred along the strike-slip fault of the rift valley where the Dead Sea lies today. They conjecture that this earthquake, which ignited "light fractions of hydrocarbons escaping from underground reservoirs" (the "rain of fire and brimstone") destroyed Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jericho, and even stopped up the Jordan River for several days. These events are said to have all happened simultaneously around 2350 B.C.
With this conclusion lumping together the biblical destinations of Sodom and Gomorrah and that of Jericho (which occurred over 900 years later), it is obvious that these authors' high regard for geology and climatology is not likewise extended to Scripture. Rather, they contend that these biblical accounts were the result of primitive recollections of these geological disasters, which were misremembered in the religious traditions of people through the ages. Consequently, these events were naively attributed to God and misconnected with different stories in Israelite historiography. Despite their "scientific approach," the authors offer no historical or archaeological evidence to support their theory, and, as one archaeological reviewer observed, they made "numerous errors in discussing archaeological sites and theories."3
Statements from Antiquity
The writers who penned the Bible, by contrast, believed the account was genuine history. They cited it as a reference of historical value, for of what worth would a fable be in seeking to convict an audience of the certainty of God's judgment? The mention of Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction by so many Bible authors to different audiences testifies to the event's universal recognition in the ancient Near East (see Deuteronomy 29:23; 32:32; Isaiah 1:9-10; 3-9; 13:19; Jeremiah 23:14; 49:18 50:40; Lamentations 4:6; Ezekiel 16:46-49, 53-56; Amos 4:11 Zephaniah 2:9; Matthew 10:15; 11:23-24; Luke 10:12; 17:29 2 Peter 2:6; Jude 7; Revelation 11:8). In addition, nonbiblical ancient historians also wrote of Sodom and Gomorrah in a realistic manner.4 Some even stated that evidences of their destruction could still be seen in their day (see especially Philo, De Abrahamo 140f ).5 That is why, despite the critics' contention that the original account was a late invention or a misapplied memory, there have been repeated efforts by some archaeologists to locate the historical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Search for Sodom and Gomorrah
The search for Sodom and Gomorrah has generally concentrated on the Dead Sea region, although some scholars have argued that because of supposed volcanic activity (the fire and brimstone) the site should be sought in Arabia 6 or Iraq.7 However, the biblical text specifies "the Valley of Siddim (that is the Salt Sea)" (Genesis 14:3), a known name for the Dead Sea.
21. West wall of Bab edh-Dhra, looking north (biblical Sodom?).
In 1924, the renowned archaeologist W.F. Albright and the Reverend M. Kyle led an expedition to investigate the southern end of the Dead Sea.8 Albright believed that the cities were beneath the waters south of the Lisan peninsula. He did not have equipment that would enable him to confirm his theory. In 1960 Ralph Baney explored the sea floor in this region using sonar and diving equipment. He found trees standing in a growth position at a depth of 23 feet, proving Albright's theory that the water of the Dead Sea had risen and submerged ancient land areas, but he did not locate any trace of ancient structures that might have been the remains of cities.9 As a result, many scholars who held to the existence of Sodom and Gomorrah concluded that either the destruction was so total that no trace could have survived, or that the remains were beyond all hope of recovery.10 Still, most Bible scholars felt that Sodom and Gomorrah had been located at a trough beneath the present sea basin at the southern end of the Dead Sea, or at a site known as Jebel Usdum, a salt dome on the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea. However, these theories were based on speculation, not archeological or geological support.
In the course of his search, Albright also discovered structures on land on the eastern shore of Transjordan across from the Lisan peninsula. At one site known in Arabic as Bab edh-Dhra, he found the remains of a heavily fortified and settled community with walled buildings, an extensive open-air settlement, houses, numerous cemeteries, and scattered artifacts-—-all signs that a large population had once lived there. Outside the ruins to the east was a group of large collapsed stone blocks (monoliths), averaging 13 feet in length. Albright interpreted these as part of a cult installation for religious rites. He dated the town to the third millennium B.C. (Early Bronze Age, 3150-2200 B.C.), and he believed the site had also ceased to be occupied within that period. He felt that there was a connection between this site and the Cities of the Plain, but because he failed to find an extensive layer of occupational debris, he theorized it had served only as a sacred pilgrimage center that was visited annually.
The Excavation of Bab edh-Dhra
In 1965 and 1967, excavations at the site of Bab edh-Dhra were carried out by Paul Lapp under the auspices of the American Schools of Oriental Research. These were later continued by Walter Rast and Thomas Schaub beginning in 1973.11 The excavations revealed that the fortification wall surrounding the city was some 23 feet thick! It was uniquely segmented and the last segment had a gateway flanked by twin towers. Within this walled area was an interior city of mud-brick houses along the northwest side and a Canaanite temple with a semicircular altar and numerous cultic objects. Outside the townsite they found an enormous cemetery with thousands of buried people. One tomb alone held about 250 individuals along with a wealth of grave goods. It was obvious that the town had been a prominent settlement in the Early Bronze Age.
But something else caught the attention of the excavators: the evidence of extensive destruction by fire. The townsite was covered by a layer of ash many feet in
22. Author next to seven-foot-thick ash deposits at Bab edh-Dhra (Sodom?).
bricks that had turned red from the intense heat. What caused this fire? There could be many reasons why an ancient city was destroyed by fire, but at the site of Bab edh-Dhra, the northernmost of the sites, we have some very interesting evidence that readily fits with the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah. Archaeologist Bryant Wood, who has specialized in the search for Sodom, explains:
The evidence would suggest that this site of Bab edh-Dhra is the biblical city of Sodom. Near that site, about a kilometer or so away, archaeologists found a vast cemetery indicating that at one time there was a very large population living here at this place. As they began to excavate the cemetery, they found that in the final phase, just at the time the city was destroyed, there was a particular type of burial that was practiced at that time, the dead were buried in a building right on the surface—a structure that archaeologists referred to as a channel house. Prior to that last phase, they dug deep tombs and buried their dead beneath the surface of the earth. But during that last phase, they buried their dead in these buildings made of mud bricks built right on the surface of the ground. Some of those structures were rectangular, some of them were round, but they all had one common feature and that was that they had been burned—-from the inside out.
Now, at first the archaeologists who excavated these buildings thought that perhaps this was some sort of hygienic practice in antiquity, that every so often because of the bodies that were placed in there, they would need to burn the interior of the structure to sort of clean it out for health purposes. But as they investigated exactly how this burning took place, they had to change their opinion on this. In one particular instance when they were excavating one of these charnel houses, they cut what we call a balk through that building as they were digging so that they had a vertical cross section of that house and the destruction, and what they discovered was that the fire did not begin inside the building but rather the fire started on the roof of the building, then the roof burned through, collapsed into the interior and then the fire spread inside the building. And this was the case in every single charnel house that they excavated.
Now, this is something that is quite difficult to explain naturally. You could explain the burning by some accident that took place and the fire spread to the town. You might explain it by an earthquake coming and causing a fire to spread. You might explain it by a conqueror coming and taking the city and setting it on fire. But how do you explain the burning of these charnel houses in a cemetery located some distance from the town? Archaeologists really have no explanation for that, but the Bible gives us the answer. The Bible talks about God's destruction on these cities because of their sin and it speaks of God raining fire and brimstone down on these cities from heaven and there in the cemetery, we have evidence that that is exactly what happened. The roofs of these buildings caught fire, collapsed, and caused the interior of the building to be burned. In the city, we did not have this kind of evidence because there had been so much erosion. We have evidence of the burning from the ash, but no collapsed roofs were found there. So in the cemetery we have evidence that supports exactly the biblical account.12
The severe burning of Bab edh-Dhra implies the presence of a mechanism capable of igniting and burning so vast an area. Geologist Frederick Clapp, who surveyed the shallow southern end of the Dead Sea (know as the Ghor) in the late 1920s and mid-1930s, noted its abundant deposits of asphalt, petroleum, and natural gas.13 This reminds us of the statement in Genesis 14:10 that the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen (tar) pits. Furthermore, there are unusual salt formations and the smell of sulphur, which also remind us of the references in Genesis 19:24-26 to a "pillar of salt" and "brimstone" (sulphur). Clapp conjectured that if these combustible materials had been forced from the earth by subterranean pressure brought about by an earthquake (earthquakes are common in this area), they could have been ignited by lightning or some other agency as they spewed from the earth. This accords with the Bible's description of this disaster as "brimstone and fire... out of heaven" with smoke ascending "like the smoke of a furnace" (Genesis 19:24, 28). Because all these factors favored the southern Dead Sea location, further surveys of this region were undertaken in the hopes of finding additional support for a connection with the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
A More Extensive Survey
According to the biblical account, five cities-—-identified as Sodom, Gomorrah, Adman, Zoar, and Zeboiim—dominated the region and were known as "the Cities of the Plain." Sodom and Gomorrah were the two most prominent cities in the pentapolis. If we allow for the possibility that Bab edh-Dhra was indeed Sodom, then it would seem that we would be able to find traces of the other cities in that same general area.
That, in fact, has been the case. Along the shoreline south of Bab edh-Dhra is the site of es-Safi, identified from Byzantine times with Zoar. Rast and Schaub's investigations discovered three additional sites, one between Bab edh-Dhra and es-Safi known as Numeira, and two south of es-Safi known as Feifa and Khanazir. After surveys and excavations were done at these sites, it was determined that all of the sites had been destroyed or abandoned at about the same time (at the end of the Early Bronze III period, about 2450-2350 B.C.). What's more, the same ash deposits that were found at Bab edh-Dhra were also found at these sites. In fact at Numeira, a heavily fortified city, one layer was over seven feet thick! Beneath the ash layer excavators found remains in almost perfect condition, especially in houses where walls had been sealed by the ash.
At every one of these sites, the ash deposits had caused the soil to have the consistency of spongy charcoal, making it unfeasible for people to resettle in them after the destruction. The account of the destruction of these Cities of the Plain records that four of these cities were destroyed, but one-— Zoar—was spared at Lot's request (Genesis 19:19-23). However, it is also recorded that though Lot fled to Zoar he was afraid to live there, choosing rather to live in the caves in the mountains outside the city (Genesis 19:30). It seems that because of the general destruction of the region, Zoar itself was also abandoned. This would then correlate the archaeological evidence with the biblical account. It is also significant that all five sites lie at the edge of the Ghor, directly along its eastern fault line. This makes possible a destruction of all the pentapolis from an earthquake-related disaster, as previously described.
Another factor that suggests the identification of these sites with the biblical cities is that the southeastern basin—beginning at the northern end of the Lisan peninsula and continuing south to the Wadi Hasa (Nahal Zered)—is known to have been prime territory for settlement. The alluvial fans (soil deposits from streams) and resources for irrigation encouraged heavy occupation.14 In this regard it is significant that each of these five sites is alongside a wadi, which allowed each city to be fed by a freshwater spring. Albright had correctly theorized that each wadi in the Ghor could have only supported one township because of the paucity of water (in the wadis), and that they were politically unified because an upstream community could have diverted the water for its own use, depriving any settlements that were downstream.15 In addition, an intensive study of the agriculture of the area determined that the ancient economy had been based on irrigation. This fits with the geographical description of the Cities of the Plain as "well-watered land like the land of Egypt" (Genesis 13:10). In addition, the southern third of the Lisan (literally "tongue") peninsula, where these sites are located, is very shallow—about 20 feet deep as compared with up to 1,300 feet deep in the northern two-thirds. This fact may indicate that the Lisan was once a plain that became flooded in later times.
These ruins are the only attested Early Bronze Age sites on the southeastern side of the Dead Sea. Because sites from this period are entirely absent on the western side, it seems that these sites should be identified with the lost Cities of the Plain. The only problem for some scholars is the assignment of an Early Bronze date for the time of Abraham and Lot. Thomas Thompson used a chronology that put the Patriarchs in a Middle Bronze I setting, which led him to reject a Patriarchal presence in the Cities of the Plains on the grounds that there was no supporting historical or archaeological evidence.16 However, when we consider the reference to these sites in Genesis 14 (which best fits a third millennium B.C. date) and the probable reference to Sodom in one of the Ebla tablets (dated to Early Bronze III, 2650-2350 B.C.),17 if a shift is made to an Early Bronze III date, Thompson's argument collapses. For with this shift an important assemblage of archaeological evidence suddenly appears for biblical correlation to a Patriarchal period, especially from these Dead Sea sites. This was, in fact, the conclusion of one excavator who had explored these sites.18
Which City Goes with Which Site?
Identifying these sites as the Cities of the Plain encourages us to attempt to further identify which site hosted which city. The Bible pairs four of the cities as "Sodom and Gomorrah," "Admah and Zebotim?' Since Zoar was the nearby city to which Lot begged to flee from Sodom, Zoar has to be near Sodom and Gomorrah. Were, then, Sodom and Gomorrah to be identified with the two sites north of Zoar or south of it? The Bible suggests that Sodom and Gomorrah were the most prominent of the paired cities. They were singled out to represent the pentapolis in God's outpouring of judgment (Genesis 18:20-21). Of these two cities, Sodom was the one Lot had chosen in his desire to have what was best (see Genesis 13:11-12). It was also the city whose king represented the other cities after the defeat of the Mesopotamian kings (Genesis 14:17). In addition, it was the city visited by the divine inquisitors in order to determine the guilt of the rest (Genesis 18:22). Thus Sodom must have been at the head of all the Cities of the Plain. If this was also a geographical headship, then the northernmost site is preferred, for it is the site most visible from the hills of Bethel, where Lot had first seen the city (Genesis 13:10-12), and from which point Abraham later viewed its destruction (Genesis 18:27-28).
Of the five modern sites, clearly the northern site of Bab edh-Dhra is the largest and most prominent, and therefore best identified with Sodom. This would mean that Numeira, just south of Bab edh-Dhra, should be identified as Gomorrah. Apart from the argument of pairing, there is evidence that this is a correct interpretation. Linguistically, Numeira may be connected with Gomorrah, for the modern Arabic designation preserves the original biblical Hebrew name.19 As for the site, the excavators Rast and Schaub reported that the southwestern sector of the ruins revealed destruction by extensive burning: "This sector of the town was destroyed by fire. The foundations of the buildings were buried under tons of burnt bricks."20 Furthermore, in one of the rooms sealed by ash debris, and thus with artifacts in roughly the same state as when the city met its end, over 5,000 barley seeds were recovered. In ancient times barley was used to make bread and manufacture beer. These foodstuffs may indicate the plentiful store of such grains in the city and could possibly reflect the statement in Ezekiel that one of Sodom's (and its sister cities') sins was "fullness of bread" (Ezekiel 16:49 KJV). When we employ the available data from the excavations and the geographical pairing of these cities, we can identify Bab edh-Dhra with Sodom, Numeira with Gomorrah, es-Safi with Zoar, Feifa with Admah, and Khanazir with Zeboiim. Associates for Biblical Research director Bryant Wood believes the evidence is compelling and therefore concludes:
These sites from the Early Bronze age discovered in the country of Jordan just southeast of the Dead Sea form a north-south line right along the southern basin of the Dead Sea. They all date to the time of Abraham and it appears these are indeed the five "Cities of the Plain" mentioned in the Old Testament.21
A Message to Our Age
If the evidence for these sites continues to mount as future excavators expect, then we finally have archaeological confirmation of the historicity of the sin cities of the Bible. This, of course, is encouraging to those whose lives are lived in faith and have nothing to fear from a God who once judged a group of cities with fire from heaven. But to those who have lived sinfully in the sight of heaven, as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah did, there can be little relief. These cities serve notice that the God who punished sin in the past is scheduled for a repeat performance. But this time He will not stop short with a few cities; He will consume the whole world (2 Peter 3:10-12). That is a prophecy not to be taken lightly, for Jesus warned that it would be "more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment" than for those who knew these facts, but forgot their lesson for life (Matthew 10:15). In view of this, the archaeological document we call Scripture advises us to come to terms with God:
Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God (2 Peter 3:1 l-12a).
If these sites are indeed the sin cities of the Bible, they confront our culture afresh with their message that our present way of life ought to be lived in light of the prospect of future judgment. If we conform our own conduct by this timely warning, then even as the fact of Sodom and Gomorrah is forcing the world to remember, its lesson through us as believers will never be forgotten.
TO BE CONTINUED