This article was first published in the Summer 2007 issue of Bible and Spade,pp. 78-84.
Geographical Evidence for Locating Sodom
Collins begins by stating, “Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim almost never appear on Bible maps” (2007: 70), and “even conservative Bible maps don’t include them [Sodom and Gomorrah]” (2007: 73). These statements are quite inaccurate. In reviewing eight Bible atlases published since 1997 that cover the period of the Patriarchs, seven locate the Cities of the Plain south of the Dead Sea.1 The eighth (Team Media 1998) offers no suggestion as to their location.
An analysis of geographical indicators in Scripture places Sodom and the Cities of the Plain south of the Dead Sea. The southern border of Canaan is described in Genesis 10:19 as passing from Gaza, on the Mediterranean coast, to Gerar, identified as Tel Haror 12.4 mi (20 km) southeast of Gaza (Klenck 2002: 29), to the Cities of the Plain. Tel Haror lies west of the southern end of the Dead Sea as it existed in Abraham's time.2 Tall el-Hammam, on the other hand, lies northeast of the Dead Sea. When the four kings of Mesopotamia fought against the kings of the Cities of the Plain, they “joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (the Salt Sea)” (Gn 14:3), a clear reference to the southern basin of the Dead Sea which had flooded in later times (Frumkin and Elitzur 2001: 49–50). When Ezekiel chastised Jerusalem for her wickedness, he said,
Your older sister was Samaria, who lived to the north of you with her daughters; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you with her daughters, was Sodom (Ez 16: 46).
Samaria is 34 mi (55 km) north of Jerusalem and Bab edh-Dhra, the likely site of Sodom (Wood 1999: 68–69), is 40 mi (64 km) southeast of Jerusalem. Tall el-Hammam, however, is 26 mi (42 km) east-northeast of Jerusalem.
Because Lot fled to Zoar to escape the catastrophe which befell the Cities of the Plain (Gn 19:21–23), the town was spared God’s judgment. From biblical and extrabiblical references we know that Zoar was occupied from the time of Abraham to the Middle Ages. Both Isaiah (15:5) and Jeremiah (48:34) mention it in their prophecies against Moab (Iron Age). It is further mentioned in various ancient references from the Roman period to the Middle Ages (Astour 1992; Howard 1988; Schaub 1997: 63). Both Josephus (The Wars of the Jews 4.8.4; first century) and Eusebius (2003: 58 [The Sea of Salt]; early fourth century) state that Zoar was south of the Dead Sea, and the famous Madaba Map (sixth century) places Zoar and the Sanctuary of St. Lot south of the Dead Sea (Donner 1992: 42). The Sanctuary of St. Lot, actually a monastery and church complex, has been located south of the Dead Sea and excavated (Politis 1999). It was built around a natural cave which early Christians believed was the cave Lot and his daughters took refuge in after the destruction of the Cities of the Plain (Gn 19:30).
The geology of the plain south of the Dead Sea also points to this area as being the location of the Cities of the Plain. Genesis 14:10 states, “now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar (ḥēmār) pits.” Ḥēmār is bitumen, a naturally occurring petroleum substance similar to asphalt. It was used extensively in antiquity for mortar, sealing and as a binding agent, and is commonly found in the area south of the Dead Sea (Bilkadi 1984; 1994; Clapp 1936a: 901–902; 1936b: 341–42; Neev and Emery 1995: 141–43). The material that fell on the plain causing the destruction of everything save Zoar was goprît, sulfurous oil (black sulfur) (Wood 1999: 74–75). Petroleum and sulfur are also present south of the Dead Sea (Clapp 1936a: 906; 1936b: 40; Harris and Beardow 1995: 360; Neev and Emery 1995: 33, 140–42).
“Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of Jordan was well watered...like the land of Egypt” (Gn 13:10). Collins interprets this as referring to the annual flooding of the Jordan River, similar to the Nile River (2007: 71). The Hebrew words used, however, do not support this interpretation. The Hebrew words translated “well watered” are ḵullāh, meaning “all of it,” and mašqeh, a noun derived from the causative form of the verb meaning “to drink,” giving the meaning “completely irrigated.” Thus the allusion is to the irrigated land of Goshen in the northeast delta of Egypt where the Israelites lived during their sojourn in Egypt.
Paleobotanical studies have shown that there was a rich diversity of crops grown at Bab edh-Dhra and her nearby sister city Numeira, probably Gomorrah (Wood 1999: 68–69). Most common were barley, wheat, grape, figs, lentils and flax. Less common were chickpeas, peas, broad beans, dates and olives (McCreery 1980: 52). Several of these crops could only have been grown with the use of irrigation:
There is little doubt that agriculture was an important component of the economic base of the Early Bronze Age cities in the [southeast Dead Sea plain] region and that irrigation was a key element of the agricultural industry (McCreery 1981: 168; cf. p. 167; 1980: 52; Harlan 2003).
It appears that each of the Cities of the Plain controlled the water from perennial streams that flowed into the plain from the plateau to the east (McCreery 2003; Schaub 1997: 63).
Understanding Genesis 13
Collins’ main evidence for locating Sodom north of the Dead Sea is found in Genesis 13. There we have the account of Lot choosing the Cities of the Plain (kikkar) as the area where he would pasture his flocks. Collins interprets the location of the event as “the environs of Bethel/Ai” (2007: 71). Thus, when Lot “set out toward the east” (Gn 13:11), he would have traveled to the area of the southern Jordan Valley just north of the Dead Sea.
A careful analysis of the chapter, however, reveals that that is not necessarily the case. The separation passage, vss. 5–17, is bracketed by references to two important camping places which had religious significance for Abraham. After returning from Egypt, Abraham moved northward until he came to the place between Bethel and Ai where he had previously built an altar. “There Abram called on the name of the Lord” (Gn 13:3–4). Following the separation, “Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the Lord” (Gn 13:18). We are not given the details of the journey from Bethel/Ai to Hebron, except for the account of the separation of Lot. The straight-line distance from Bethel/Ai to Hebron is ca. 27 mi (44 km), and so the journey would have required a number of encampments. Since Abraham would have sought the best pasturage for his animals along the way, it is unlikely that he traveled in a straight line.
Genesis 13 does not specifically state where the separation took place. From the Bethel/Ai area to Tall el-Hammam is ca. 25 mi (40 km), a considerable distance for Lot to observe “that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered” (Gn 13:10). Based on the evidence we have considered, it is more likely that the separation took place in southern Canaan just prior to Abraham settling at Hebron. If their wanderings took them southeast of Hebron, they could have come to a place ca. 15 mi (24 km) east of Bab edh-Dhra, where Lot would have been close enough to observe the vegetation of the kikkar of the Jordan (Cassuto 1984: 215, 368).
Regarding the use of Genesis 13 to locate Sodom, Walter Rast, one of the excavators of Bab edh-Dhra, summarized the situation well:
One can safely say that the directions and locations in Genesis 13 are the most general and obscure of all the texts about Sodom. It is surprising that some scholars could put so much weight on the indistinct locations given there [for a northern location], while rejecting the more compelling references in other texts [for a southern location] (2006: 21).
Collins understands the Hebrew word kikkar, translated plain, as meaning a circular disk, and the Jordan Valley north of the Dead Sea, according to Collins, matches that description (2007: 72). Any map or satellite photo of the area will show, however, that the plain is not circular, but rectangular in shape. Furthermore, Sodom and Gomorrah and the Cities of the Plain were associated with the kikkar of the Jordan (Gn 13:10, 11). The plain north of the Dead Sea was called the kikkar of the valley of Jericho (Dt 34:3, KJV), not the kikkar of the Jordan. A different kikkar of the Jordan from the one the Cities of the Plain were associated with was located between Zarethan, most likely Tell es-Saidiyeh (Tubb 1997: 452), and Succoth, probably Tell Deir Alla (Franken 1997: 138), (1 Kgs 7:46). It is squarish in shape. The Hebrew word kikkar was used of bread (Ex 29:23) or a specified weight of precious metal, a talent (Ex 25:39). It is evident that it was the flatness of these objects that caused the word to be applied to a plain, rather than roundness (Speiser 1964: 96–97).
Chronological Evidence for Locating Sodom
Collins maintains that the Cities of the Plain “must date from the Middle Bronze Age” which is “the only possible timeframe for Abraham” (2007: 72). He reaches this conclusion by lowering the dates for Abraham 215 years by using a Sojourn of 215 years rather than 430 as stipulated in Exodus 12:40 (2007: 77, n. 3). Ray has carefully reviewed all of the pertinent evidence regarding the Sojourn and concludes:
the various lines of evidence would seem to indicate that the 430 years should be taken at face value for the Israelite sojourn in Egypt (2004: 42; 2007: 94).
Starting with the date of the Exodus at 1446 BC (Wood 2005) and a Sojourn of 430 years, a straightforward reading of the chronological data in the Old Testament yields dates for Abraham of 2166–1991 BC, with the destruction of the Cities of the Plain occurring in 2067 BC (Walton 1978:40),3 at the end of the Early Bronze (EB) period. Collins, however, lowers this date by 215 years to 1852 BC in the Middle Bronze I period.4 Since Middle Bronze Age pottery was found at Tall el-Hammam, Collins concludes that it must be Sodom (2007: 75) But he is vague about what phase of the Middle Bronze Age Tall el-Hammam was occupied. The Middle Bronze Age was very long, stretching from ca. 1920–1483 BC (Bietak 2002: 37–38, 41–42). More specific dating must be provided before a correlation can be made with biblical Sodom.
Stratigraphic Evidence for Locating Sodom
Collins’ third criterion for identifying Tall el-Hammam with Sodom is stratigraphy, i.e., the archaeological phases found at the site (2007: 72). He maintains that a Middle Bronze Age destruction should be found, followed by “at least a few centuries of abandonment” since Moses found the area to be uninhabited according to Numbers 21:20 (2007: 72). Since the evidence points to a southern location for Sodom, however, the reference to “wasteland” in Numbers 21:20 is irrelevant, given that it applies to the kikkar of the valley of Jericho and not to Sodom.
Since “occupation at the site [of Tall el-Hammam] came to an abrupt halt...during the Middle Bronze Age” and Middle Bronze Age remains were found in one area “buried under nearly 3 ft (1 m) of ash and destruction debris” (2007: 76), Collins assumes a match with the destruction of Sodom as described in Genesis 19 (2007: 76). But he fails to provide a date for this destruction, and there has been insufficient excavation to determine if it is site-wide or merely a local occurrence. In order for there to be a match with Sodom, it is necessary to have evidence for a massive site- and area-wide destruction by fire, accompanied by an enormous earthquake (Wood 1999: 72–78), in 2067 BC (or 1852 BC, according to Collins’ chronology). This has not yet been demonstrated for Tall el-Hammam.
Architectural Evidence for Locating Sodom
The final criterion for identifying Sodom is architecture (Collins 2007: 72). By this, Collins means that the site must be fortified, since “Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city” when the two angels arrived (Gn 19:1). A typical Middle Bronze Age rampart fortification system has been found at Tall el-Hammam, but again we must ask, “What is the date of this system?” Simply saying that it is Middle Bronze Age in date is not sufficient. It must correlate to the exact time of the destruction of the Cities of the Plain as recorded in Scripture.
The Date of the Destruction of the Southern Sites
Collins’ major criticism with the Early Bronze Age sites discovered south of the Dead Sea, in addition to the fact that they do not correlate with his understanding of Genesis 13, is that they were destroyed too early. He says Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira “were both destroyed about 2350 BC, long before the time of Abraham and Lot” (2007: 77 n. 3). The destruction of these sites occurred at the end of the EB III period. Rast gives the date as 2350 BC (2006: 24), while the co-director of the excavations, R. Thomas Schaub, places the date slightly later at 2300 BC (1997: 249).
In reality, the archaeological date for the end of the EB III period cannot be determined with any degree of certainty. Dating for the Bronze Age in Palestine is dependent upon synchronisms with Egyptian chronology. Unfortunately, no synchronisms have yet been found for the EB III period. There are a few correlations for the previous EB II period, suggesting that it was approximately contemporary with the Archaic Period (First and Second Dynasties) in Egypt, ca. 3100–2700 BC (Ben-Tor 1992: 122; Kitchen 1996: 11; Mazar 1990: 135). The dates for the Archaic Period are only known to within 200 years, according to Kenneth Kitchen, a recognized authority on Egyptian chronology (1991: 202).
Manfred Bietak, based on his important work at Tell el-Daba (ancient Rameses), Egypt, places the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age at ca. 1920 BC (2002: 37, 41–42). How the intervening 800 years from the end of EB II to the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age should be divided between the EB III and EB IV periods is strictly an educated guess.5 The reason for the demise of the urban centers of EB III, with its concomitant destructions and site abandonments, is unknown (Ben-Tor 1992: 123–24; Mazar 1990: 141–43; Richard 1987: 34). It is thought that EB III was the longer of the two periods because of multiple phases of building and destruction found at a number of sites, including Bab edh-Dhra (Ben-Tor 1992: 123). It is entirely within the realm of possibility, therefore, that the destruction of Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira could have occurred at the biblical date of 2067 BC. We shall have to wait further archaeological discoveries before an accurate archaeological date for the end of EB III can be ascertained.6
All of the relevant evidence points to the area south of the Dead Sea as the correct location for Sodom. Excavations at two sites in that region, Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira, have provided strong evidence that these two sites should be identified as Sodom and Gomorrah, respectively (Wood 1999). Even if one grants the possibility that the Cities of the Plain should be located north of the Dead Sea, the excavations at Tall el-Hammam to date have not provided the necessary evidence to make a viable connection between the site and biblical Sodom. Collins’ statement, “Tall el-Hammam is, far and away, the best candidate for biblical Sodom” (2007: 77), goes beyond the available evidence.
1Aharoni, Avi-Yonah, Rainey and Ze’ev 2002: 43; Curtis 2007: 72; Dowley 1997:17; Farrington 2003:16,19; Lawrence 2006:25; Rainey and Notley 2006: 113; Strange 1999:28.
2The southern basin of the Dead Sea was dry during Abraham’s time (Frumkin and Elitzur 2001: 49).
3The birth of Isaac was announced by the Lord as being “about this time next year” (Gn 18:14). Since Isaac was bom in 2066 BC (Walton 1978: 40), the destruction of the Cities of the Plain occurred one year earlier in 2067 BC.
4The Middle Bronze Age I period extended from ca. 1920–1700 BC (Bietak 2002: 37, 41–42). Some prefer the older nomenclature of Middle Bronze Age IIA for this period.
5The end of Early Bronze Age III is given as 2350 BC in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (Dever 1992: 110), 2300 BC in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (5: 413; 1997) and 2200 BC in the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (4: 1529; 1993).
6One possibility is that the end of the Early Bronze Age III period was brought about by the double blow of the campaign of the four Mesopotamian kings described in Genesis 14 and the destruction of the Cities of the Plain described in Genesis 19. These two events occurred about 20 years apart (Shea 1988; Wood 1999: 70–74).
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