Dr. Carole Fontaine of the Andover Newton Theological School said, “Archeologists often find themselves hooted and hollered out of town, when they first suggest things like, ‘I’ve found Troy, or look, we’ve found Sodom and Gomorrah.’ But history has shown that in fact, the more you dig, the more you find. It’s amazing how accurate the Bible sometimes turns out to be.”
This quote comes from an episode of History’s Mysteries: Sodom and Gomorrah. It was originally aired in 2000 on the History Channel. (If you have Netflix, you can download it to your computer or television free with your subscription. Here is the link.) I’ve really enjoyed learning about archaeology evidence concerning these two Biblical cities. I’m going to reference 2 videos here, and I’ll color-code quotes from each. In addition to History’s Mysteries (highlighted in red), I’m also going to reference the 2006 series called Digging for the Truth: The Real Sin City: Sodom and Gomorrah (highlighted in purple.)
The Bible mentions 5 cities of the plain: Zoar, Sodom, Gomorrah, Adman, and Zeboiim. These cities date from the Early Bronze Age, approximately 3300-2050 BC. William F. Albright, the “Father of Modern Biblical Archaeology” (from Johns Hopkins University), led a a team of archaeologists in 1924 into Jordan along the eastern side of the Dead Sea specifically to find evidence of Sodom and Gomorrah. During the expedition, they discovered massive amounts of pottery dating to the Bronze Age. They started digging, and discovered a site which is known today as Bab Edh-dhra.
Following the discovery of the site, Albright wrote an editorial indicating this could be a possible site for one of the infamous Biblical cities. Strangely, Dr Walter Rast of Valparaiso University (Indiana) says that Albright decided to walk away from the site. According to Rast, Albright decided
“That it probably would have been best if these sites are never found because of the evil that is associated with these sites, in the Biblical tradition. Don’t undo God’s work. Let it be left under the earth.”
Due to political instability in Jordan, the site was not studied again until the 1960’s. Paul Lapp, director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem began picked up where Albright left off, and soon found a massive cemetery. At first it was believed that this massive cemetery might be the result of the massive destruction and loss of life associated with the Bible story. However, carbon dating revealed that the cemetery held citizens over a 1300 year period from 3300 BC on down to 2000 BC, nullifying the idea that this large group of people died in a single catastrophe. Unfortunately, Lapp died in a swimming accident in 1970, and was not able to shed further light on the site.
In 1973, Walter Rast (of Valparaiso University) and Thomas Schaub, (a doctoral student at the Jerusalem University) discovered a second city just 8 miles from Bab Edh-dhra, which has been named Numeira. Pottery remains were similar to Bab Edh-dhra, and this city had a more interesting demise. There is evidence that the entire city was burned. Was it arson from a conquering army, or fire and brimstone as it says in the Bible? Archaeologists can’t tell, but it was definitely burned. Quoting Schaub from the video,
“At Bab Edh-dhra, we have several things that indicate that the town had a violent interruption in its life. There are walls severely tilted, almost to a 50 degree angle, walls that have collapsed and slid down.”
The scarred ruins discovered at Numeira, paint even a more shocking portrait of a fiery end.
Schaub, “We find the remains of that destruction right on the surface. That’s the striking thing about this site of Numiera. It’s so well-preserved.”
Rast, “When Schaub and I were walking around Numeira, we were able to see already evidence of a tremendous depth of destruction for this site. Everywhere we have excavated, whether at the East end, or the West end, or the south side, we have found a deep level of destruction and debris.”
Schaub, “There is also along with fire, the collapse of a tower, and under that tower, we found skeletons of individuals— very dramatic exposure.”
Rast, “But they were not buried there, they were caught in some sort of destruction. They had a kind of character that was similar to what we have found much more extensively in Pompei.”
These 2 cities of the plains met their fates together, as in the fates of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Brimstone means literally “burning stone.” In the Dead Sea region, highly flammable sulfur deposits are easily found in this region. Josh Bernstein, host of Digging for the Truth, demonstrates how easy sulfur is to find and burn in the area. If there was an earthquake releasing oil, natural gas, sulfur, and/or tar, it’s easy to imagine fire and brimstone raining down on Numeira. There have been 17 earthquakes in the past 100 years— it is a well-known area of earthquakes. National Geographic has a very dramatic simulation of what might have happened in this short 3 minute video.
But that’s not all. Remember, there are 5 “cities of the plain” mentioned in the Bible, not just the infamous twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Greek Orthodox Church of St George in Madaba, Jordan dates from the 6th century AD. The church was restored in the 19th century. The stone floor inside the church has mosaic from the Byzantine era containing a map. The map is not complete, but Zoar, one of the 5 cities of the plan, is shown on the map. Zoar is significant in the Biblical story, because Lot passed nearby as he escaped from Sodom and Gomorrah.
The map had intrigued Konstantinos Politis, director of the British Museum for years. When superimposed on a modern map of the area, it seems to be quite accurate. Zoar is shown to be on the southeastern edge of the Dead Sea, along with the image of another church in the area.
Armed with this map, Politis began looking for Zoar. In 1987, Politis discovered an ancient monastery in a mountainous region southeast of the Dead Sea. At the monastery, Politis found a Greek inscription: “St Lot, please bless these servants, April 605 AD.”
Politis, “It’s not a small chapel, it’s quite a large church built in the slopes, so there was quite a lot of effort and money that went into the effort. The people who built this church were people of the Byzantine period, roughly from the 5th, 6th, 7th centuries AD. These are the early Christians.”
While an impressive discovery in its own right, a chance accident brings it to the forefront of Biblical archaeology.
Politis, “On September 15, 1991, two workmen were digging in the mountainside on the site and they came across this hall and it turned out to be a cave, and almost immediately I thought of the Old Testament: Genesis. This can’t possibly be Lot’s cave? [He chuckles]”
As Politis searched the cave, he discovered a discovered pottery dating from 2500-1700 BC. Apparently the cave was occupied by someone dating to the Early Bronze Age.
According to the Bible, Lot and his 2 daughters flee Sodom in the wake of its destruction. They pass through the city of Zoar on their way to a cave. This passage provides a clue to Politis’ discovery.
Politis, “The site is located about 2 km away from ancient Zoar, where Lot escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which some people have associated with Bab Edh-dhra and Numeira.”
Here’s another archaeological site in the right place and from the right time. Could this really be Lot’s cave, the place where Lot’s daughters seduce him in order to repopulate the world?”
Wolpe, “If you claim that you found a cave where somebody commit incest 2000 years ago, [this] is a claim which could not possibly by any stretch of the imagination be proved. It makes no more sense than pointing to any other cave and saying that’s Lot’s Cave because there is no evidence remaining of what happened, or if it happened, or how it happened, or where it happened.”
Politis, “Archaeological, scientifically, I am quite convinced that we have the church and the cave which the early Christians believed was Lot’s cave. Whether Lot himself lived there and stayed with his daughters, I don’t know. But to actually prove that this was Lot himself is impossible.”
I have to say, I find it really odd that these early Christians would build a monument where incest occurred. David Wolpe rabbi of Sinai Temple (Los Angeles, California) explained the mind-set of Lot’s daughters, and why they would try to get pregnant by their father.
Wolpe, “What seems to have happened after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is that Lot’s daughters believed they were the last human beings left on earth.”
Intent on preserving their own lineage and all of humanity, Lot’s daughters devise a plan. They come to him with great quantities of wine.
Wolpe, “They got their father drunk and had incestuous relationships with him in order to repopulate the world. It says something very human about the desire to see life proliferate, even after a terrible catastrophe.
This is such an odd idea to me. I can’t imagine believing what it would be like to think you’re the only human beings left on the planet. Does it really seem the situation is so desperate that they needed to have incestuous relations? They really odd thing to me is the idea that the sin of Sodom was sexual relations. Isn’t this a bit of irony? Is there any evidence of Sodom’s sinful sexual nature from these sites?
Rast, “You do have a couple of cases of syphilis as evidence in the bone material, but that would be natural for a community back at this time. Sexually transmitted diseases would have been the case everywhere as a possibility in ancient society.”
Schaub, “But it would take a real stretch of the imagination to relate what we find in the ground to the decadence that seems to be associated with the Biblical story.”
Fontaine, “We sometimes find when we look at Bible stories, that people think they know what they say, but when we look more closely, we sometimes find the text is ambivalent.”
After close study of the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis, many scholars have come to doubt its true intent was to condemn sexual deviance.
Fontaine, “The sin of the Sodomites is one of the biggest mysteries about this whole story. The Bible deliberately makes it ambiguous in the book of Genesis as to what that sin might be.”
Schaub, “It’s just the one incident where people come and demand that, say in the story about Sodom in chapter 19, that Lot gives these men out to them so that they may know them— a sexual term, or has sexual intercourse with them. That one incident really has to be tied into the larger picture of the few chapters which is really about hospitality.
Fontaine, “In the Jewish legendary material, again and again when we hear stories of Sodom, it’s not about sexual deviance; it’s about the people’s unwillingness to give charity to their poor, and their wretched treatment of strangers.”
Given the seeming primitive beliefs concerning adultery, taking the name of God in vain, is the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah really the idea that they didn’t take care of strangers very well?
Let’s turn to Lot’s wife, and the story of her turning into a pillar of salt. Josh Bernstein talked with Rami G Khouri, Author of a book titled, Antiquities of the Jordan Rift Valley.
Khouri, “It’s a message. It’s a moral message which is personified in these physical remains.”
This 20 foot tall salt-encrusted pillar is known as Lot’s Wife. Bernstein refers to this pillar as a “Biblical scarecrow.”
Bernstein, “So if we’re looking at this metaphorically, and not literally, what’s the message?”
Khouri, “I think the message from the Biblical text certainly— and it goes throughout the whole Old Testament— is that people should obey God— they should be faithful, and trust God. If you don’t obey God, you get zapped. [This is] throughout the Bible.
Bernstein, “So the people could use this as a bogeyman. They could say ‘you better listen to God when he speaks, because otherwise you’re going to turn into that pillar.'”
Khouri, “That’s right. I think that’s the aim of the story. Of course many stories of the Bible are like this.”
Wolpe has another perspective on the story.
“His wife was told not to look back, which has been symbolically taken as the idea that in some ways, when people leave evil practices, they pine for them; they still wish they could do what they used to do.”
So, what are we to make of these archaeological finds? Is there enough evidence and explanation of Sodom and Gomorrah for you? On the one hand, Rami Khouri says,
“These stories, these narratives, are based on facts that we can prove in many cases: geological facts, geographical facts, chronological facts, and historical factsâ€¦I think there were cities that were destroyed. You will certainly find sites where the archaeological evidence synchronizes rather compellingly with the Biblical evidence.”
David Wolpe, “It would be remarkable if certain things in the Bible were proved to be archaeologically true, but it wouldn’t prove faith, because faith is by definition that which cannot be proven by empirical evidence. You don’t use scientific criteria to prove faith. I’m not looking to prove God through rocks and stones and ancient remains.”
Wolpe, “It is impossible to know if these cities are Sodom and Gomorrah even if you find evidence of destruction, because we don’t have in the Bible sufficient description of exactly what was in the cities to correspond to actual archaeological findings. So, I remain a skeptic.”
Schaub, “Is there any possibility that these 2 sites could be the Biblical sites of Sodom and Gomorrah? I’d say, ‘yes’, there is probably a connection.”
Dr Walter Rast, Valparaiso University, “But beyond circumstantial evidence, we don’t have much more to go on than the circumstantial evidence. It cannot really stand by itself as really final proof. You can set it forth as theory, and I wouldn’t mind setting it forth as theory.”
What do you make of all this? Are the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah simply fables, or could there be some evidence to indicate some of these events actually transpired?