Chapter Four from my Book, The Word Set in Stone: How Archaeology, Science, and History Back up the Bible
[to be published by Catholic Answers Press on March 20, 2023; 320 pages]
[pre-order from Amazon ($21.95 for the paperback) ]
Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven . . . and lo, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace. —GENESIS 19:24, 28
Prior to the last fifteen years or so, the leading archaeological theory, for those who believe that Sodom and Gomorrah existed, placed the location of these cities on the south end of the Dead Sea, on the eastern shore—although there were several prominent advocates among archaeologists as far back as the nineteenth century for a northeastern shore location, and this was, in fact, the consensus location from the fourth century until the early 1900s.
The buzz and fun discussion currently taking place is largely the result of the Tall el-Hammam excavations in Jordan, led (beginning in 2006) by archaeologist Steven Collins, dean and professor at Trinity Southwest University. He has written voluminously and passionately about his positions.
Brian Nixon, of Assist News Service, quotes Collins in covering the “northern” theory:
The traditional “Southern Theory” site of Sodom does not have the geographical parallels described in the [biblical] text. Namely: 1. One can see the whole area from the hills above Jericho (Bethel/Ai), 2. It must be a well-watered place (described “like Egypt”), 3. It has a river running through it (the Jordan), and 4. It must follow the travel route of Lot [who, Nixon elaborates, went to the other side of the Jordan, eastward, away from Jericho].
“What does all this mean?” Nixon concludes: “Simple: the traditional sites attributed as Sodom may be incorrect.” (54)
He again cites Collins, summarizing some of the findings of the dig in the year 2010:
To start with, the Tall el-Hammam site has twenty-five geographical indicators that align with the description in Genesis. Compare this with something well known— like Jerusalem—that has only sixteen. Other sites have only five or six. So this site has a greater number of indicators than any other Old Testament site. That is truly amazing.
Second, our findings—pottery, architecture, and destruction layers—fit the timeframe profile. Meaning we should expect to find items like what we are finding from the Middle Bronze Age. This is exactly what we are uncovering.
Though . . . much research still needs to be conducted, I feel that the evidence for this being the ancient city of Sodom is increasing by the day.
Collins has provided extensive argumentation for a chronology of the Tall el-Hammam/Sodom archaeological site. (55) His analysis nicely lines up with our proposed dates of Abraham, and he estimated that Sodom was destroyed “between 1750 and 1650” B.C. Based on various archaeological evidences, Collins concluded that
the patriarchs—from Terah through Joseph—belong entirely to the Middle Bronze Age, with most of that sequence occurring during MB2 (1800–1540 BCE).
These dates correspond with the work of Kenneth Kitchen—so Collins noted, citing Kitchen’s exhaustive examination of, for example, “treaties and covenants; family customs; religion; geopolitics in Canaan; personal names; the price of slaves, and more.” Collins concludes at length,
Interestingly, if Tall el-Hammam is Sodom as I think the geographical and archaeological evidence categorically confirms, then it constitutes a most remarkable confirmation of the historical veracity of the patriarchal narratives.
Amanda Borschel-Dan, in a Times of Israel article on this topic, sums up the evidence for some sort of massive explosion in Sodom and its surrounding area:
As reported in Science News, at the recently concluded Denver-based ASOR Annual Meeting, director of scientific analysis at Jordan’s Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project Phillip J. Silvia presented a paper, “The 3.7kaBP Middle Ghor Event: Catastrophic Termination of a Bronze Age Civilization.” . . .
According to the paper’s abstract, the scientists discovered evidence of a “high-heat” explosive event north of the Dead Sea that instantaneously “devastated approximately 500 square kilometers.” . . . Silvia told Science News that the blast would have instantly killed the estimated 40,000 to 65,000 people who inhabited Middle Ghor, a 25-kilometer-wide circular plain in Jordan.
Radiocarbon dating of the site yielded a date of about 1700 B.C. The article continues:
Contemporary potsherds’ glazes apparently experienced temperatures high enough to transform them to glass, “perhaps as hot as the surface of the sun,” Silvia told the news source. . . .
“The destruction not only of Tall el-Hammam (Sodom), but also its neighbors (Gomorrah and the other cities of the plain) was most likely caused by a meteoritic airburst event,” the authors conclude. (56)
In summary, Steven Collins and Phillip Silvia further elaborate in a technical conference paper, (57)
A pottery sherd found in a sealed MB2 context on the Upper Tall shows evidence of exposure to extreme temperature in that one surface has been melted into glass. Examination of this “vitrified” sherd at New Mexico Tech (NMT), Northern Arizona University (NAU), and North Carolina State University (NCSU) found bubbles inside melted zirconium crystals in the glass that indicate boiling of the crystal at over 4,000° C. The glass (melted clay) layer is less than 1mm thick, and thermal discoloration of the clay penetrated only halfway through the 5mm thickness of the sherd. This led the research team to conclude that the temperature profile to which the sherd was exposed was between 8,000° C and 12,000° C for less than a few milliseconds.
What does all this mean in layman’s terms? It’s quite simple: something caused an almost unimaginably hot burst of heat at this time and place in history. The best explanation that scientists from many varying fields came up with was “a meteoritic airburst.” That’s a plausible explanation for the remarkable melting phenomenon at the site, which created glass-like rocks.
Many skeptics would note the natural and historic event and simply move on. But it does precisely verify the accuracy of the biblical text. Christians believe that there is such a thing as judgment and that God exercises it at times when human beings become irreparably wicked. The Flood was another such instance—so we believe in faith, but not without reason.
The Bible—especially an early book like Genesis—was written in pre-scientific, pre-philosophical, and phenomenological language (that is, using descriptions of appearances). Hence, the author of Genesis (whom many Christians and Jews believe to be Moses) chose to describe the ostensible explosion of a meteor as “brimstone and fire” that “rained” down upon Sodom and Gomorrah.
This makes perfect sense once it is understood that “brimstone” was an ancient term for sulfur, one of the most reactive elements, which is still found in abundance on the shores of the Dead Sea today. The “smoke” alluded to in Genesis 19:28 may have also referred to this, among other things (perhaps more specifically to what we now know as sulfuric acid), and “fire,” at least partially or possibly, described “burning pitch,” since bitumen is also prevalent in the same area.
God utilizes natural forces or supernatural ones, or a mixture of the two, as he decrees. In this instance, we believe—based on hard science—that he judged Sodom and Gomorrah through the use of a meteor, which he indirectly caused to come into existence through natural processes and laws that he initially set into motion, just as with all the rest of his creation. And he knew exactly when and where it would strike.
54 Brian Nixon, “Archaeological Evidence for Sodom: Recent Findings Shed Light on Discoveries of Biblical Proportions’,” Assist News Service (December 8, 2011).
55 Steven Collins, “Tall el-Hammam Is Still Sodom: Critical Data-Sets Cast Serious Doubt on E.H. Merrill’s Chronological Analysis,” Biblical Research Bulletin Vol. 13, No. 1 (2013).
56 Amanda Borschel-Dan, “Evidence of Sodom? Meteor blast cause of biblical destruction, say scientists,” The Times of Israel (November 22, 2018). See also Ted E. Bunch et al., “A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea,” Scientific Reports (September 20, 2021), a fantastically detailed examination, with many fascinating photographs. Compare Evan Gough, “A Meteor may have Exploded in the Air 3,700 Years Ago, Obliterating Communities Near the Dead Sea,” Universe Today (December 4, 2018).
57 Steven Collins and Phillip Silvia, “The Civilization-Ending 3.7KYrBP Event: Archaeological Data, Sample Analyses, and Biblical Implications” (November 2015): https://3182d453b68388416980-71bc4c8fd3e50b4ee0e248e517d3026f.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/uploaded/ s/0e8156401_1544622622_sodom-and-gomorrah-archaelogical-proof.pdf.
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Summary: “Sodom Obliterated”: Chapter Four from my Book, The Word Set in Stone: How Archaeology, Science, and History Back up the Bible. Science suggests a meteor.