19 Comments

Has Sodom and Gomorrah Been Found?

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 facts…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?

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19 comments on “Has Sodom and Gomorrah Been Found?

  1. The whole story of Sodom and Gomorrah seems outlandish to me.

    God (Jesus according to LDS) sends angels to Sodom and Gomorrah and find Lot.
    Men (both young and old) desire to rape these angels.
    Lot begs them to rape his daughters instead.
    They reject Lot’s offer and try to get to the angels but are all struck blind.
    Lot escapes with his wife and 2 daughters. (previously offered to rapists)
    The wife looks back and is turned to salt. (WHY? Because looking back is grievous)
    Lot’s daughters get Lot so drunk that he doesn’t realise they are laying with him.
    By a miracle of God (Jesus) he is still able to function, despite his drunkenness.
    Twice

    Additional Commentary:

    Lot’s daughters are actually dumb enough to think there are no other men alive on the earth even though they likely encountered them at Zoar and likely are aware of other cities (like where Abraham lives)

    I’m sorry but to me, this entire chapter is a collection of nonsense.

  2. Yes, I agree Bishop Rick, this is a very strange story, and there are some really theologically troubling aspects of it.

    Some of these experts seemed to take the story as having elements of truth and legend in it. What do you make of the archeaological sites? Numeira seems to be plausible, IMO.

  3. I saw the documentary you mention. I think its very plausible. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying the evidence supporting these sites is very convincing. I’m not 100% convinced, but I’m above 75%. That’s pretty good.

  4. Bishop Rick is spot on as to the substance of the tale. Super nonsensical. I think the story of Lot is aetiological — there are many naturally occurring pillars of salt in the saline atmosphere of the plains around the Dead Sea. Some of them look a bit like a weathered statue.

    I think it’s possible that there were historical cities called Sodom and Gomorrah. Plenty of locations in the Bible have been verified through archaeology. But the geographical reality of a city is a separate issue from how factual the personal histories in the Bible are.

    Funny how archaeology tends to verify the geographical setting of the Bible, but historical research tends to refute (or at least create confusion about) the geographical setting of the Book of Mormon.

  5. A friend recently cited Genesis 19 to me for the proposition that homsexuality is sinful. I am not a Bible expert, so I looked it up. Although I had, of course, heard the Sodom and Gommorah story for all of my life, I was astounded when I actually read ‘chapter and verse’. Indeed, I had exactly the same concerns as Bishop Rick.

    1) ALL of the men in Sodom, YOUNG and OLD, and from ALL parts of the town (obviously we’re not talking about a one-stoplight-crossroads settlement here), were gay? What are the odds of that? Gays are what, at most 15 percent of the population? If all the men in this town were gay, how is it that there were YOUNG men — how did they manage to be born in the first place? Even if you can think of a town which is overwhelmingly gay (think Fire Island on summer weekends), not ALL of the men from ALL parts of the town, both YOUNG and OLD are gay.

    2) Next we are asked to believe that Lot, a father of two young daughters — both virgins, no less — offers them up to the mob which surrounds his house. Huh? What kind of father would do such a thing?

    3) We are then told that God instructed Lot and his family to get out of town as fast as they could and to not look back. Fine. We all know what that means: it’s no different than 9/11. Lot and his family run for their lives from the collapsing Twin Towers; Lot’s wife happens to look over her shoulder (while still running perhaps?) at the unbelievable spectacle taking place behind her and gets turned into a pillar of stone as a result? Huh? Now the Biblical literalists want to INTERPRET that as meaning that Lot’s wife violated God’s will. BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT IT SAYS. Genesis 19:26 does not say that Lot’s wife questioned God’s instructions and was punished by being turned into a pillar of stone. (If this portion of the Bible is, indeed, the Word of God, then why wouldn’t He have said it that way?) But whatever, as punishment for her using her GOD-GIVEN trait of human CURIOSITY, Lot loses his wife and his two daughters lose their mother? And while I’m at it, note that the instruction to ‘not look back’ did not come directly from God; it came from one of the two men (angels presumably sent by Him). If nothing else, we know with certainty that Genesis 19:17 is NOT the word of God. It is, if you take it literally (which the Biblical literalists say we must), the word of one of the two angels. And the last I checked, there is a big difference between an angel and God.

    4) Now we get to the part where Lot’s daughters basically decide to rape their father. (I guess this means that the Bible condones incest?) According to Genesis 19:33-35, on two consecutive nights, the girls get their father drunk on wine. Despite being an elderly, inebriated man, he nonetheless achieves an erection (without Viagra, of course) and reaches orgasm. This takes place despite the fact that he is so outrageously drunk that he is completely unaware of what is going on. For two nights in a row. And both daughters just happen to be ovulating on the very same two nights — and they both are successful at getting pregnant. Uh-huh.

  6. Thanks Molly and Seminarian. I really like David Wolpe’s position on Lot’s wife: “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.”

  7. Yes, but once again, that is someone’s INTERPRETATION; it is NOT what the Bible says.

  8. […] I discussed a couple of sites in the Dead Sea region that some people believe are the sites of Sodom and Gomorrah.  While some people love to claim the Bible is actually a collection of myths, Dr. Carole Fontaine […]

  9. Ok, Bishop Rick I am not doing a personally attack on you at all and if you are affended I am sorry.
    Remember that the Bible is at times symbolic, Lot’s story is very weird and WEIRD!
    Angels were sent down from heaven to take Lot and his family out of the city. Yes the people did want to rape the angels then the angels made them blind. Lot leaves then wife looks back turns to salt. OK this is were explantion comes (sumbolicly remember that) basicly Sodom and Gomorrah represented the world (sin). God will give you that chance to make it out of that world. But while they were leaving the Angels warned them not to look back, when Lot’s wife looked back it meant that she wasn’t willing to leave the world (sin). Basicly meaning that she was willing to leave God for Sin.

    As for the daughters sleeping with there father, it was because Lot’s family were the last Holy linage to God so as in sleeping with there father would continue the linage.

    Sorry if I couldn’t explain it so well
    Its been a while since I read it and tryed to explain it to someone.

  10. Jeremiah:

    You can’t be serious.

    P.S. You ought to run spell-check once in a while.

  11. This is one of the stories in Genesis that Joseph Smith saw fit to “retranslate”, and the resulting narrative is much more coherent (from a theological and moral perspective):

    9 And they said unto him, Stand back. And they were angry with him.

    10 And they said among themselves, This one man came in to sojourn among us, and he will needs now make himself to be a judge; now we will deal worse with him than with them.

    11 Wherefore they said unto the man, We will have the men, and thy daughters also; and we will do with them as seemeth us good.

    12 Now this was after the wickedness of Sodom.

    13 And Lot said, Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, plead with my brethren that I may not bring them out unto you; and ye shall not do unto them as seemeth good in your eyes;

    14 For God will not justify his servant in this thing; wherefore, let me plead with my brethren, this once only, that unto these men ye do nothing, that they may have peace in my house; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.

    15 And they were angry with Lot and came near to break the door, but the angels of God, which were holy men, put forth their hand and pulled Lot into the house unto them, and shut the door.

    As I read it there’s a very strong suggestion that the real sin of Sodom was using sex as a form of institutionalized punishment. I think “this” in verse 13 may refer to the idea in verse 10 that to “deal worse” was to sexually abuse Lot’s daughters as well as his angelic visitors as punishment for Lot’s apparent misdeed of “mak[ing] himself to be a judge”. That would rival the wickedness, in my opinion, of the practice among the apostate Nephite armies of sexually abusing and then killing via torture captured Lamanite women (“as a token of bravery”… There’s a strong scent of domination/control/power issues in both these stories).

    Deviancy from divine sexual mores is a garden-variety moral issue for all people regardless of their orientation. Using sex to punish or control, on the other hand, is a far more serious matter and one that the LDS scriptures appear to resoundingly condemn.

  12. Jeremiah,

    I am not offended by what you wrote. I understand that many today view much of the Bible (especially the Old Testament) to be allegorical. Problem is there is nothing in history to support that claim. People have been taking the Bible to be the literal word of God for thousands of years. Its only recently that people are starting to challenge the literalistic view.

    Regarding Lot, are you saying that of the millions of people on the face of the earth at the time of Lot, that Lot was the only “Holy Lineage” left? Do you not realize how silly that sounds (with all due respect)?
    1) There is no such thing as a “Holy Lineage.”
    2) Abraham was still alive.
    3) The details of the story are not physically possible.

    Andrew,

    I agree that the JS version of Sodom and Gomorrah makes much more sense than the KJV does, but it does not change the fact that the story did not happen as written.

    I don’t have access to the JST. What does it say about Lot’s daughters getting him drunk and laying with him?

  13. The longer JST passages are in the “Study Helps” in the online version of the LDS scriptures. The referenced verses can be found here:

    http://scriptures.lds.org/en/jst/7

    Here are the JST modifications to the story of the incident with Lot’s daughters:

    http://scriptures.lds.org/en/gen/19/31a

    and

    http://scriptures.lds.org/en/gen/19/35a

    These also pop in context up if you put your cursor over the highlighted word in the text.

  14. The JST doesn’t really change much, only adding “dealt wickedly, and” to:

    “And the firstborn (dealt wickedly, and) said unto the younger…”

    and later:

    “And they (did wickedly, and) made their father…”

    The edit doesn’t change the story at all, and seems out of synch with the original. This story has so many problems on so many levels. First, they are on the run and had no time to even pack their things before being drug out of the house and forced to leave by the angels…but they somehow managed to carry enough fermented wine to get drunk…twice.

    Then Lot was so drunk that he essentially passes out, but somehow is able to impregnate his daughters unbeknownst to himself. This would take a miracle, yet somehow I can’t see a reason for miraculous incest.

    Not sure why they didn’t just go to Abraham either, instead of hiding in a cave. Abraham lived so close that he could actually see S and G’s destruction.

    This story is simply hogwash. I can’t believe it made it into the cannon.

  15. The Bible says that the foolishness of god is WISER THAN MEN IT GOES ON TO SAY THAT GOD CHOOSES THE FOOLISH THINGS TO CONFOUND THE WISE IN ORDER TO UNDESTAND THE SCRIPTURES YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE AUTHOR OF THE BOOK IN YOUR LIFE COME TO THE TRUTH AS A CHILD NOT IN YOUR INTELLECT SIN, SAM SPARKS

  16. Jesus said “he that is without sin should cast the first stone.” I suggest you put down your stones. We are all sinners, and you shouldn’t think that your sins are less than mine. (In case you didn’t know, typing in ALL CAPS looks like you are YELLING.) Perhaps you could be a bit less rude when you comment here Sam Sparks.

  17. Sam, exactly. That’s why I can’t believe that such a story is of God. Remember, God did not write the Bible. The Bible is a collection of writings, written by men. Men decided what ended up in the Bible. Because of this, you can’t expect EVERYTHING in the Bible to be accurate.

  18. Well, nobody will find Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities were destroyed by fire and brimstone and were submerged into the seas and were made with black waters,and the cities where you can find is in the Black seas, which is called, El Mar Muerto, nigh Israel. These are the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where it has converted into petroleum like black charcoal. This petroleum is where all the cities were burnt with fire and brimstone. These cities were melted and were made like black as charcoal. There are no more questions. You have the evidence and it is obvious. El Mar Muerto, is the evidence of the Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities where it was destroyed. There are no beyond questions.

  19. Huh? The Black Sea is really the remants of Sodom and Gommorah? And because you said so, that makes it “evidence”? Use the mind that our Creator gave you, man!

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