The Discovery of the Sin Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah

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Excerpt When the archaeological, geographical and epigraphic evidence is reviewed in detail, it is clear that the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have now been found. What is more, this evidence demonstrates that the Bible provides an accurate eyewitness account of events that occurred southeast of the Dead Sea over 4,000 years ago... Continue reading

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This article was originally published in summer 1999 issue of Bible and Spade.

The names Sodom and Gomorrah(1) are bywords in our modern society. An especially wicked place is described as a "Sodom and Gomorrah." Pastors are sometimes said to be preaching "fire and brimstone." And we have the legal term sodomy for unnatural sex acts. These allusions, of course, stem from the Biblical account of events that occurred in the days of Abraham in Genesis 19.

But did these places ever exist and will they ever be found? Most scholars think not. In his Anchor Bible Dictionary article on Sodom and Gomorrah, M.J. Mulder concluded that they were,

Two legendary cities from prehistoric Israel in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea...it is highly uncertain, if not improbable, that the vanished cities of the Pentapolis will ever be recovered (1992: 99, 102).

In their textbook on the history of Israel and Judah, Miller and Hayes state:

The Sodom and Gomorrah story reflects yet another motif pattern known from extrabiblical literature, that of divine beings who visit a city to test the hospitality of its people and eventually destroy the inhospitable city. One can compare in this regard the Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon. The presence of such traditional motifs in the Biblical narratives raises the possibility that at least some of these narratives are purely products of the storyteller's art, which of course raises serious questions about their usefulness for historical reconstruction (1986:60).


Looking for the Sites

Sodom and Gomorrah were two of five cities referred to in Scripture as the Cities of the Plain. From references to the "plain of the Jordan" (Gn 13:10), "the Valley of Siddim (the Salt Sea)" (Gn 14:3) and Abraham looking down to see the Cities of the Plain from the area of Hebron (Gn 19:28), it is clear that the cities were located in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. Since the mountains come close to the shore on both the east and west, the cities must have been located either north or south of the Dead Sea. Various commentators over the centuries have suggested locations both north and south (Mulder 1992: 101 102). The reference to "bitumen pits" in Genesis 14:10, however, tips the scale in favor of a southern location (Howard 1984). Bitumen (a natural petroleum product similar to asphalt) was commonly found in the shallow southern basin of the Dead Sea in antiquity. (Bilkadi 1984; 1994; Clapp 1936a: 901–902; 1936b: 341–342).

One popular theory, repeated yet today, is that the Cities of the Plain were located in the plain south of the Dead Sea and later covered by the waters of the southern basin, never to be seen again. The level of the Dead Sea has receded substantially in recent years, causing the southern basin to dry up. (2) Extensive exploration and activity in the area has produced no evidence to indicate that there were ancient sites there (Rast 1987a: 193).

It wasn't until 1973 that solid archaeological evidence for locating the Cities of the Plain was found. At that time an archaeological survey of the area southeast of the Dead Sea was conducted by Walter Rast and Thomas Schaub in conjunction with their work at Bab edh-Dhra, an Early Bronze (ca. 3300–2000 BC) site on the east side of the Lisan peninsula.(3) Rast and Schaub discovered four additional sites south of Bab edh-Dhra, which they suggested might be related to the Cities of the Plain of the Old Testament (Rast and Schaub 1974). Subsequent excavations at Numeira, 13 km (8 mi) south of Bab edh-Dhra, have verified its close affinity with Bab edh-Dhra. Follow-up work at the other three sites, Safi, Feifa and Khanazir, however, has not been as rewarding.

Explorations at Safi, Feifa and Khanazir

When Rast and Schaub visited es-Safi in 1973 they discovered a large Early Bronze Age cemetery. To the east of the cemetery they observed wall remains and Early Bronze sherds indicative of a settlement site (1974: 911). Unfortunately, in the years following their survey, homes have been constructed on the site and "subsequent visits have been unable to confirm the presence of a[n Early Bronze Age] town site" (Schaub 1992: 895).

Less than a month of excavation was carried out at Feifa and Khanazir, 16 December 1989–13 January 1990. An enormous Early Bronze Age cemetery was found at Feifa by Rast and Schaub in 1973, as well as a fortified enclosure (1974: 11–12). Upon excavation, the enclosure turned out to be an Iron Age II (eighth century BC) fortress constructed over part of the Early Bronze Age cemetery (de Vries 1991: 262; MacDonald 1997: 65). At Khanazir, walls observed by Rast and Schaub in 1973 (1974: 12–14) were in reality rectangular structures marking Early Bronze IV shaft tombs (deVries 1991: 262; Rast 1992: 560; MacDonald 1997: 65; Schaub 1997b: 62).

Even though the locations of three of the Cities of the Plain remain elusive, evidence is strong that the two most important, Sodom and Gomorrah, have been found.

Map of the area south of the Dead Sea, showing the
proposed locations of the Biblical Cities of the Plain.
 


Identifying the Sites

Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira are the only known inhabited towns in the region of the Dead Sea between ca. 3300 and 900 BC. Moreover, Bab edh-Dhra is the largest site from the pre-Hellenistic period in the area (Rast 1987b: 46). The conclusion that these sites are associated with the Cities of the Plain is inescapable (Rast 1987a: 190–94; 1992: 561).

In determining which archaeological site should be identified with which Biblical place name, we begin with Zoar. Because Lot fled to Zoar to escape the catastrophe (Gn 19:21–23), the town was spared from God's judgment. From later references to Zoar in the prophecies against Moab (Is 15:5; Jer 48:34), we know that the town continued to exist. It is further mentioned in various ancient references from the Hellenistic period to the Middle Ages (Schaub 1997b: 63; Astour 1992; Howard 1988b). (4) The most important source for locating the site is the Madaba map, a mosaic map on the floor of a church

Bab edh-Dhra—view east along the south wall. Note the
proximity of the mountain in the background. The angels told Lot,
"Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!" (Gn 19:17).
 

Bab edh-Dhra townsite and cemeteries. Although the northern wall was lost due to erosion, it is estimated that the size of the fortified area was 9–10 acres. There was occupation to the east, south and west of the city walls as well. The main burial area throughout the more than 1,000 year history of the town was Cemetery A to the southwest.
 


in Madaba, Jordan, depicting Palestine in the sixth century. Zoar is shown on the southeast shore of the Dead Sea, just south of the Zared River (Wadi Hesa) (Donner 1992: 42, No. 18). This places ancient Zoar in the vicinity of modem Safi, although its exact location is not known at present (Schaub 1997b: 63–64).

The Bible tells us that Lot and his daughters lived in a cave in the mountains near Zoar (Gn 19:30). At the edge of the mountains just to the east of Zoar, the Madaba Map depicts the Sanctuary of St. Lot, a church built in memory of Lot. H. Donner and E.A. Knauf discovered the ruins of the church in 1983 (Donner 1992: 42), although McDonald claims to have found the site in 1986 (Politis 1993: 338). Built in front of a cave thought to be where Lot and his daughters lived, the church is located 7 km (4 mi) northeast of Safi on the north bank of the Wadi Hesa. The earliest evidence of occupation at the site is from the Early Bronze Age. Since the other four cities are always mentioned in pairs—Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim—it is logical to presume that Sodom would have been located near Gomorrah and Admah near Zeboiim. Thus Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira should be identified with one of these pairs, but which one?

Turning to the site to the north of Safi, Numeira, we can make a linguistic connection with one of the Cities of the Plain. Many times ancient names are preserved in modem Arabic place names. The consonants of the name Gomorrah are c (ayin) MR and the consonants of Numeira are N M R. The ancient and modem names match, except for the first letter. Initial laryngeals like the ayin in cMR were commonly lost or transformed in the process of time, or when they came over into other languages or dialects. In this case, it is possible that nasalization took place, so the ayin in Hebrew cMR became the N in Arabic NMR (Shea 1988: 17).

Jericho has been called the lowest city in the world, being at an elevation of 220 m (720 ft) below sea level. Bab edh-Dhra is at about the same elevation. The title of the world's lowest city, however, must now go to Numeira since it is situated at 280–290 m (920–950 ft) below sea level.

The site to the north of Numeira, Bab edh-Dhra, would then be Sodom. Since Bab edh-Dhra is the largest ancient ruin in the region it stands to reason that it should be identified as Sodom, the most famous of the Cities of the Plain. It was occupied throughout the Early Bronze Age for a period of over 1,000 years.

The Evidence

General

Geological studies have shown that the level of the Dead Sea was at a low point during the Early Bronze Age (Neev and Emery 1995: 62) and thus the shallow basin, or "plain" south of the Dead Sea, would have been dry land and probably cultivated. (5) The location of the Early Bronze Age sites along the eastern edge of the plain fits the Biblical description of the cities as being of the plain. "Cities of the Plain" is in the construct state in the Hebrew, which means that the word "cities" has a close association with the word "plain." The cities were not in the plain, or on the plain. If that were the case, a different construction would have been used. Rather, the cities were "of" the plain—they had a close association, or connection, with the plain. They were doubtless dependent upon the plain for their livelihood.

Paleobotany

The first description of the Cities of the Plain in the Bible is in the account of Lot separating from Abraham in Genesis 13:10–13. There, the plain is described as being "well watered" as far as Zoar (Gn 13:10). The Hebrew words translated "well watered" are kullah, an intensive form of the verb meaning "to be complete," and masqeh, from the verb meaning "to give to drink" or "irrigate." The meaning of kullah masqeh, then, is to be completely and totally irrigated. Paleo-botanical studies have shown that there was a rich diversity of crops grown at Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira. Most common were barley, wheat, grapes, 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 EB cities in the region and that irrigation was a key element of the agricultural industry (McCreery 1981: 168; cf p. 167, 1980: 52).

City gate at Bab edh-Dhra. Located on the northeast side of the site, this is the gate that was in use at the end of the life of the city. The angels met Lot in the city gate. (Gn 19:1–3). The arrow shows the direction of entry.

It appears that each of the five Cities of the Plain controlled the water from the principal streams that flowed into the plain from the east.

Fortifications

When the two angels came to Sodom to warn Lot of the impending doom, they found him sitting in the city gate (Gn 19:1). This indicates that Sodom was fortified. Bab edh-Dhra, which means "gate of the arm," had imposing fortifications. The city wall, enclosing an area of 9–10 acres, was a massive 7 m (23 ft) wide and made of stones and mud bricks (Schaub 1993: 134). Evidence for settlement was found outside the walls as well. The total population at the time Bab edh-Dhra met its end was between 600 and 1,200 (Rast 1987b: 47; 1992: 560; Schaub 1993: 134). Within the walls were a sanctuary on a high spot at the southwest end of the city, domestic and industrial areas, and a gateway on the northeast side.

The gateway was comprised of two flanking towers with massive stone and timber foundations. They were ca. 4 m
(13 ft) wide and 10 m (33 ft) long, with a 3–4 m (10–13 ft) passageway between. When Lot saw the angels, "he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground" (Gn 19:1). He then invited them to his home. Houses at Bab edh-Dhra were of the typical Early Bronze Age "broad room" style. They were rectangular, being about 5 m (16 ft) long and 2–3 m (7–10 ft) wide with an entrance in one of the long sides (Rast 1987b: 46).

At Numeira, a town smaller than Bab edh-Dhra, the city wall was found to be about 4 m (13 ft) wide. Inside were houses very much like those at Bab edh-Dhra. It appears that the residents of Numeira buried their dead in the enormous cemetery at Bab edh-Dhra since no cemetery was discovered at Numeira. Supporting this hypothesis is the fact that pottery from Numeira was found in burials at Bab edh-Dhra (Rast 1987b: 47).

Bab edh-Dhra—view north along the west wall, with the excavation areas at the west gate visible. The main gate was located here throughout most of the history of the city, giving easy access to the agricultural fields in the plain below. About 25 years before the final destruction, however, Bab edh-Dhra suffered a destruction which caused the citizens to purposely block up the west gate and construct a new gate on the northeast. This can be linked to the attack of the coalition of Mesopotamian kings described in Genesis 14.
 

Two Destructions

The Bible tells of not one, but two, traumatic events that occurred in the final days of Sodom and Gomorrah. Genesis 14 describes an attack against the Cities of the Plain by a coalition of four Mesopotamian kings. The battle was joined in the Valley of Siddim, probably at the northern end of the plain. Following their rout of the army of the Cities of the Plain,
The four kings seized all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food; then they went away. They also carried off Abram's nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom (Gn 14:11).
Then, in Genesis 19, we have the record of the final destruction when, because of their sin,

The Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus He overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation of the land. (Gn 19:24–25).
Plan of the excavated areas at Numeira. On the south is a 4 m (13 ft) town wall with an adjacent open area. North of the wall is a residential area, with blocks of houses separated by an east-west street. The entire area was covered with a thick layer of ash from the firestorm that totally destroyed the town.


 

From the chronological data given in Genesis, it is possible to approximate the time span between the sacking of Sodom and Gomorrah by the kings of Mesopotamia and the final destruction of the cities. The account of the attack of the Mesopotamian coalition comes between the time when Abraham left Haran when he was 75 (12:4) and the conception of lshmael when Abraham was 85 (16:3). Since Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed at the time of the conception of Isaac when Abraham was 99 (17:1, 21:5), the sacking of Sodom and Gomorrah by the kings of Mesopotamia took place between 14 and 24 years before the final holocaust. There is evidence at both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira for two destructions. (6)

Excavation area at Numeira as it appeared following the 1977 season.
Occupied for less than a century, the remains were better preserved at
Numeira than at Bab edh-Dhra. Textiles, string, rope, seeds, and even a
cluster of grapes survived amazingly well. Every room was filled with ash
and burned debris from the dreadful holocaust that overtook the city.
 


Evidence for Destruction at Bab edh-Dhra

Throughout most of the life of Bab edh-Dhra the main entrance to the city was located on the west side, giving access to the plain below. Within the last 100 years of occupation, the west wall and gate area underwent a major destruction (Schaub and Rast 1984: 46; Rast 1987b: 47; Schaub 1997a: 249). This resulted in the citizens intentionally blocking up the west gate and constructing a new gate in the northeast (Schaub and Rast 1984: 46; Schaub 1993: 134). The new gate was founded on a meter of burned destruction debris resulting from the calamity (Rast and Schaub 1980: 28; Rast 1981a: 20).

Shortly thereafter, at the close of the Early Bronze III period, the fortified city at Bab edh-Dhra met a final fiery end. Even though the site is badly eroded, enough evidence remained in several areas to show the severity of the disaster. The northeast gate was destroyed by fire as indicated by charcoal, broken and fallen bricks, and areas of ash (Rast 1981: 21). There was a massive pile-up of mudbrick in the west end suggesting heavy destruction in this part of the city (Rast 1981: 31). At this time the city wall fell and the mudbrick superstructure of the sanctuary collapsed, apparently after burning (Rast 1992: 560). The many stone and boulder fields within the city came from walls that were disrupted and transported downslope (Donahue 1980: 51; 1985:136).

Following the destruction, there was occupation at Bab edh-Dhra in the Early Bronze IV period, but almost exclusively outside the destroyed Early Bronze III fortified town. Following this brief period of extramural settlement, the site was permanently abandoned.

Two victims of the destruction of Numeira. These two skeletons were found adjacent to the east tower, lying in the ashy debris of the conflagration which brought the city to an end. They were buried under the collapsed stones from the tower.
 

Evidence for Destruction at Numeira

At Numeira, a better preserved site than Bab edh-Dhra, the evidence is even more dramatic. Unlike Bab edh-Dhra, the remnants of the town did not suffer erosional damage. Also in contrast to Bab edh-Dhra, Numeira was occupied for less than 100 years (Rast 1981b: 42; Rast and Schaub 1980: 43). On the east side of Numeira is a large tower 7.4 m (24 ft) wide and at least 10.0 m (33 ft) long (Coogan 1984: 80). It was built over an earlier domestic phase that suffered a heavy burning.
This earliest phase of occupation was destroyed by fire; the walls and rooms that collapsed over the ashy destruction debris consisted of considerable mudbrick detritus, many large wooden beams, and carbonized grasses and reeds still tied by the ropes that had held them together as thatch. On the occupational surface of Room V (NE 10/2 Locus 5) was the skeleton of a mature male who had perished in the destruction of this earliest phase (Coogan 1984: 79).
Similar evidence was found in Room 4 just inside the southern wall. Some 20–30 cm (8–12 in) below the final phase was an earlier phase with fragments of human bones (Rast and Schaub 1980:44).

As with Bab edh-Dhra, Numeira was violently destroyed at the end of the Early Bronze III period. The type of pottery lying on the floors of the houses confirms that it met its end at the same time as Bab edh-Dhra (Rast and Schaub 1980: 45). A thick layer of burnt debris was found in almost every area excavated (Rast 1981b: 41; 1987b: 47). Michael Coogan, one of the excavators of Numeira, described what the archaeologists encountered:
Under the topsoil (desert pavement) and a naturally deposited windblown sandy soil, the entire area was covered by the ashy debris of the final destruction of the town, up to 0.40 m in depth. This ash contained fragments of wooden beams that had supported the roofs of the dwellings and lay immediately over the latest occupational layer within each room, sealing the material beneath it. Not infrequently there was mudbrick detritus over the ash, which had resulted from the collapse of the mudbrick superstructures after the final conflagration (1984: 76).
On the inner side of the tower more startling evidence was found for the tragedy which overcame Numeira.
Over the final layer was a thick (0.50–0.10 m) layer of ashy debris, in which were found the skeletons of two mature males who perished in the final destruction of the town; over this was mudbrick detritus and rockfall (Coogan 1984:80).

In Room 4 just inside the southern wall were fragments of human bones above and on the final surface (Rast and Schaub 1980: 44). Numeira met a tragic end and was never again occupied.

It is possible to estimate the time span between the earlier destruction and the final destruction at Numeira. The area adjacent to the inner (west) face of the tower was used as an outdoor activity area. More than 20 alternating layers of chaff and carbonized material were found between the earlier domestic phase and the final destruction layer. The nature of the layers suggests seasonal activity (Coogan 1984:80). Thus, we can estimate the time span between the two destructions as being a little more than 20 years, which agrees with the Biblical time frame (14 to 24 years) between the events of Genesis 14 and 19 (Shea 1988: 18–19).

Trade With Syria

In 1975 a great archive of clay tablets dating to 2400–2350 BC was discovered at Tell Mardikh, ancient Ebla, in northern Syria (Archi 1997). One of the tablets is a geographic atlas listing 289 place names. An analysis of two segments of the list by William Shea indicates that they are sites located in Palestine, possibly places visited by merchants from Ebla (Shea 1983). The second segment, sites 188–219, traces a route from Syria south through the central hill country of Cisjordan, along the western shore of the Dead Sea, south of the Dead Sea Plain and then north along the east side of the Plain and Dead Sea. In the area corresponding to the east side of the Dead Sea Plain there are two places named—Number 210, Admah, and Number 211, Sodom. If Shea's readings are correct, this would be the only confirmed mention of the Cities of the Plain outside the Bible. (7) But why were not the other three cities, Gomorrah, Zoar, and Zeboiim, mentioned? The excavations at Numeira perhaps can shed some light on that question. These excavations revealed that Numeira (= Gomorrah) was in existence for only a short period of time, less than 100 years. It appears that the Ebla Atlas was composed prior to the founding of Numeira. The same may true of Zoar and Zeboiim.

There has been some corroborating evidence from Bab edh-Dhra for this proposed contact.

Among the cultural items that reflect foreign contact...the majority—including architectural features, cylinder seal impressions, jewelry, some forms of pottery, and a carved bull's head—show Syrian, if not Mesopotamian, influence (Schaub 1993: 135).

Route traced by the Ebla Geographic Atlas. Site number 210 is Admah and site 211 Sodom—the only known occurrence of names of the Cities of the Plain outside the Bible.
 

Means of the Destruction of the Cities of the Plain

The Biblical Description

The Bible provides a detailed description of the calamity that befell the Cities of the Plain. In that description are two Hebrew phrases and a Hebrew word that must be examined in order to understand the event: goprit wa es, the material that fell on the cities (Gn 19:24), hapak, what happened to the cities (Gn 19:25), and kqitor hakkibsan, what Abraham observed (Gn 19:28).

The word goprit is a foreign loan word, most likely derived
from Akkadian ki/ubritu, which means sulfurous oil (black sulfur) (Gentry 1999). The word accompanying goprit, wcc es, simply means "and fire." In other words, the material that fell on Sodom and Gomorrah and the Cities of the Plain (except Zoar) was a burning petroleum product. The term hapak means to overturn, or overthrow.

When Abraham looked down upon the scene of devastation, he observed smoke rising from the land of the plain, keqitor hakkibsan, "like smoke from a furnace." A kibsan is a pottery kiln (Wood 1992). Air passing through a pottery kiln does so by means of a forced draft resulting from the heating of the air. The smoke exiting from a kiln is forced out of the exit flue and pushed upward into the air. That is what Abraham observed—smoke from the land of the plain being forced upwards. The word used for smoke, qitor, is not the word used for smoke from an ordinary fire. Rather, it is a thick smoke, the smoke that comes from sacrifices. It is clear that something unnatural or extraordinary is recorded here.

The Biblical description, then, of the destruction was of burning material raining down from above, accompanied by an overturning of the cities and thick smoke being forced upward from the land. A rather apocalyptic scene, one that was forever etched in the minds of the ancient Israelites. The awful devastation and destruction that occurred that day became the example par excellence of God's judgment of sin.

Cross-section of the Dead Sea area, showing the geological strata and fault lines on either side of the Dead Sea Plain. A possible explanation for the destruction of the Cities of the Plain is that pressure from an earthquake caused underground flammable petroleum products to be forced up through the fault lines. They then become ignited and rained down on the surrounding countryside. The sites of Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira are located precisely on the eastern fault line.
 


Geological Investigations

At first reading it would seem that the destruction was caused by a volcanic eruption. When geologist Frederick G. Clapp visited the region in 1929 and again in 1934 he found that there was no evidence to indicate that lava or ash eruptions had taken place as recently as 4,000 years ago. He determined that topographic relationships render it probable that the last outburst in the vicinity took place thousands of years before Abraham's time (Clapp 1936a: 906; 1936b: 339–40). More recent assessments support that conclusion (Neev and Emery 1995: 147).

Clapp found that the region south of the Dead Sea is very unstable, being bordered by fault lines on the east and west. Earthquakes are common in this area. After surveying the geology of the district, Clapp concluded that combustible materials from the earth destroyed the cities. He found bitumen and petroleum in the area. Natural gas and sulfur, which normally accompany bitumen and petroleum, are also present. These combustible materials could have been forced from the earth by subterranean pressure brought about by an earthquake resulting from the shifting of the bounding faults (Clapp 1936a: 906; 1936b: 40). Geologists who have studied the area in recent times agree with Clapp's reconstruction (Harris and Beardow 1995: 360; Neev and Emery 1995: 13–14; 33, 37). If lightning or surface fires ignited these combustibles as they came spewing forth from the ground, it would indeed result in a holocaust such as described in Genesis 19. It is significant to note that both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira lie at the edge of the plain, exactly on the eastern fault line!

Abraham, after having previously spoken with the Lord, knew of the impending judgment. Rising early in the morning he looked toward the Cities of the Plain from his vantage point at Hebron, high on the Mount Judah range west of the Dead Sea. Smoke rising from the plain south of the Dead Sea would have been readily visible from Hebron. In fact, mist rising from the Dead Sea can be seen almost any day from there. Abraham's eyewitness description fits the theory of a conflagration of petroleum products, for such a conflagration would result in a thick black smoke being forced into the sky by the heat and pressure of the burning materials shooting out of the fissure in the earth.

Evidence at the Town Sites

That an earthquake occurred at the time the cities were destroyed is clear from the work of geologist Jack Donahue of the University of Pittsburgh. At Bab edh-Dhra he found that during the period of occupation there was sedimentation, or infilling, and a build up of cultural debris (Donahue 1985: 135). Following the destruction, this changed to an erosional regime, brought about by an uplift of the area (Donahue 1980: 50; 1985: 134–36). The uplift produced an increase in the elevation differential between the town site and the Wadi Kerak on the north side of at least 28 m (92 ft) (Donahue 1985: 134).This resulted in severe erosion on the north side of Bab edh-Dhra, causing the north wall to eventually collapse into the wadi (Donahue 1985: 136).

At Numeira the findings were similar:

It is suggested here that the tower collapse and extensive burn layers over the site were caused by an earthquake generated by fault movement (Donahue 1985: 139).
The earthquake caused either an uplift in the vicinity of the site or a downdropping of the rift valley to the west, resulting in a 50 m (164 ft) increase in elevation differential between the town site and Wadi Numeira to the north (Donahue 1984: 86; 1985: 137). It also caused a change in direction of the Wadi Numeira, which flowed south of the site during the period of occupation (Donahue 1984: 86, 88; 1985: 138). Heavy erosion following the event resulted in the loss of the north part of the settlement, including the north defensive wall (Donahue 1984:87;1985:138,139).

Evidence found at Numeira suggests the residents fled the town in haste. Most identifiable doorways from the latest phase of occupation had been deliberately blocked. This apparently was an attempt to strengthen the homes against damage. In addition, no valuable small finds were discovered nor were there foodstuffs in the storage facilities. On the other hand, large quantities of pottery were found on the floors of the houses, evidently too heavy and bulky to transport in the hasty evacuation. It appears the residents had some early warning, such as preliminary tremors, and did what they could to prepare. They shored up their houses, gathered up their valuables and as much food as they could carry, and fled their homes never to return (Coogan 1984: 80–81).

Stone-lined grain storage pits at Numeira. Many such pits were found at Numeira, but they were all empty. Evidence suggests the inhabitants fled their homes with as much food as they could carry, with the idea of living out in the open until the earthquake was over. They never returned—Numeira lay in ruins until discovered and excavated by archaeologists in the 1970s.
 


Evidence at the Bab edh-Dhra Cemetery

We have detailed the evidence that both town sites were destroyed by an overwhelming conflagration. Additional evidence from the cemetery at Bab edh-Dhra demonstrates that the destruction included areas outside the towns, thus involving "the entire plain" (Gn 19:25) and that it "came out of the heavens" (Gn 19:24).

During the Early Bronze III period the dead at Bab edh-Dhra were interred in charnel houses built above ground. Five of the buildings that were excavated, A8, A22, A41, A51 and A55, were in use at the end of the life of the city. In each case the building was extensively burned (Schaub and Rast 1989: 326–26, 344, 384; Rast and Schaub 1978: 24; Rast and Schaub 1980: 37). The explanation the excavators offer for this burning is that it was intentionally done by a human agent that also destroyed the town (Rast and Schaub 1978: 24; Rast 1987:49; Schaub and Rast 1989: 396). The evidence we have discussed above points to destruction by earthquake rather than by a human agent. Even if Bab edh-Dhra was destroyed by an enemy, it seems highly improbable that a conqueror would go into a cemetery located several hundred meters away and systematically set fire to and demolish all the burial houses. This would be an unprecedented act for which there are no known parallels. There is a more logical explanation.
 
 

Plan and section of Charnel House A22 at Bab edh-Dhra. The largest of the excavated charnel houses, or funerary buildings (51 x 26 ft), the structure was destroyed by fire at the same time the city was destroyed. The fire started on the roof and spread to the interior when the roof collapsed. This provides graphic evidence that "the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens" (Gn 19:24).



 

During the 1979 season, the last and largest of the charnel houses, A22, was excavated. The building was 15.5 x 7.8 m. (50.8 x 25.6 ft) in size and constructed of mudbricks. The floor consisted of small pebbles and the roof was made up of wooden beams, reed matting and mud. Underneath the rubble, the archaeologists found the interior of the building filled with pottery and other funerary objects, and piles of human skeletal remains and skulls in disarray (Rast and Schaub 1980:36–37).

The building had been severely burned. Remnants of charred posts and beams from the roof were found among the ruins. Much ash was also found, along with bricks that were turned red from the intense heat. More intriguing than the mere fact that the charnel house was destroyed by fire, however, is the way in which it was burned—from the inside out. At first, the archaeologists thought this was a deliberate burning associated with some religious or hygienic practice. The excavation of Charnel House A22, however, has laid that theory to rest. It is now evident that the roof, engulfed in flames, collapsed into the building and caused the interior burning:
The extensive burn is clear evidence of the tomb's destruction by fire. Burning was concentrated along the interior wall in the center of both sectors, where the majority of posts and beams were uncovered. Along the south wall impressions of desiccated beams angled down toward the interior transverse wall, indicating that they had collapsed in the center across the interior wall (Rast and Schaub 1980: 37).
The destruction of the charnel houses at Bab edh-Dhra was brought about by the roofs first being set on fire, then collapsing, causing the interiors of the buildings to burn. This is entirely consistent with the Biblical description of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, when "the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens" (Gn 19:24).

Date of the Destruction

A rather precise date for the destruction of the Cities of the Plain can be worked out from the internal chronology of the Old Testament. Since the Lord told Abraham and Sarah about the coming birth of Isaac just prior to the destruction (Gn 18:10–14), the date of the destruction can be calculated based on the birth date of Isaac. If we assume a mid-15th century BC date for the Exodus, the date for the destruction would then be ca. 2070 BC. (8)

The archaeological date for the destruction of Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira, however, is considerably earlier than this. Rast gives the date for the end of the Early Bronze III period and the destruction of the cities as 2350 BC (1987: 47; 1992: 560). Schaub places the date slightly later at 2300 BC (1997: 249). (9) This leaves a discrepancy between the Biblical date and the archaeological date of 230–280 years. Does this mean that we cannot correlate the archaeological findings at Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira with the events described in the Bible?

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 the known history of Egypt. To date, we have no such synchronisms 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 (Mazar 1990: 135; Ben-Tor 1992: 122; Kitchen 1996: 11). The dates for the Archaic Period only are known to within 200 years (Kitchen 1991: 202).

Similar connections for the beginning of the ensuing Middle Bronze Age indicate that it was roughly contemporary with the beginning of the 12th Dynasty of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, ca. 1973 BC (Mazar 1990: 151; Ben-Tor 1992: 159–60; Kitchen 1996: 11). Manfred Bietak, based on his important work at Tell el-Daba, Egypt, places the beginning of the 12th Dynasty at ca. 1970 BC and the beginning of the Palestinian Middle Bronze period somewhat later at ca. 1900 BC (1997: 90, 125–26). The dates for the Middle Kingdom are known fairly well, within plus or minus 10 years, according to Kenneth Kitchen, a recognized authority on Egyptian chronology (1996: 9).

How the intervening 700–800 years from the end of EB II to the beginning of MB should be divided between the EB III and EB IV periods is strictly an educated guess. 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 ca. 2070 BC. We shall have to await further discoveries before an accurate archaeological date can be assigned to the end of EB III.

Time of Year When the Destruction Occurred

There is one additional correlation that can be made between the Biblical record and the archaeological findings—the time of year when the earthquake occurred. As pointed out by William Shea, the time can be set at late spring or early summer (1988: 21–22). When the angels visited Abraham the Lord announced,
"I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son"..."At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son" (Gn 18:10, 14, RSV).
If we assume that conception occurred approximately one month after the announcement, it would place the visit of the angels, and thus the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, in the late spring or early summer.

The well-preserved ruins at Numeira produced a number of surprises, including whole grapes. (11) During the 1977 season a large cache was found.

It is remarkable, for example, that the grapes in Locus 17 of SE 3/1 were preserved even with their outer skins, due perhaps to the burning material which collapsed over the area and sealed these items (Rast 1981: 43).

Although carbonized whole grapes have been reported from Salamis, Hesban and Jericho, the size of the Numeira hoard, which consisted of over 700 whole grapes, is very uncommon (McCreery 1981: 168).

The fact that the grapes were intact indicates that they were freshly harvested. In the hot climate of the Dead Sea valley the harvesting of grapes occurs earlier than other parts of the country—in the late spring or early summer. In the 1981 season more grapes were found, prompting the excavator to comment on the chronological implications:

The infrequent small finds included...more whole carbonized grapes with the stems attached and what preliminary analysis indicates were carbonized watermelon seeds (both evidence for dating the destruction of the site to late spring) (Coogan 1984:77).

Conclusion

When the archaeological, geographical and epigraphic evidence is reviewed in detail, it is clear that the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have now been found. What is more, this evidence demonstrates that the Bible provides an accurate eyewitness account of events that occurred southeast of the Dead Sea over 4,000 years ago.

 Recommended Resources for Further Study

     
Bible and Spade
CD-ROM
Archaeology and
the Old Testament

Bible and Spade
Summer 1999

Footnotes

(1) For previous articles on Sodom and Gomorrah in Bible and Spade, see Wood 1974, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1983; Shea 1988.

(2) Large pools of water can be observed in the former area of the southern basin, but these are artificial ponds associated with thriving potash industries operated by Israel and Jordan. Water from the Dead Sea is directed to the pools (salt pans) where it is evaporated, allowing valuable salts to be harvested.

(3) The Lisan peninsula divides the main, northern, body of the Dead Sea from the shallow southern basin.

(4) We find such references only for Zoar. There are no later references to the other Cities of the Plain, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah or Zeboiim, as living communities.

(5) The "Valley of Siddim (the Salt Sea)" in Genesis 14:3, 8 and 10 is undoubtedly the shallow basin south of the Lisan Peninsula which, in later times when the level of the Dead Sea was higher, became an extension of the Dead Sea. The valley had many pits of hemor or bitumen. This asphalt-like petroleum product was commonly found in the southern basin of the Dead Sea throughout antiquity. The name "Siddim" derives from the verb saded which means "to harrow." Wherever the verb is used in the Old Testament, it is in an agricultural context (Jb 39:10; Is 28:24; Hos 10:11) (Howard 1988a).

(6) It is possible that these two events, the attack of the coalition of Mesopotamian kings described in Genesis 14 and the destruction of the Cities of the Plain described in Genesis 19, were significant contributing factors in the demise of the Early Bronze III culture in Canaan.

(7) The original epigrapher of the Ebla expedition, Giovanni Pettinato, claimed in 1976 to have found the names Sodom, Gomorrah and Zoar/Bela in the Ebla tablets. Alfonso Archi, Pettinato's successor as Ebla epigrapher, vigorously contested this. See the discussion in Shea 1983: 608–609.

(8) 1450 Exodus (1 Kgs 6:1; Jgs 11:26) + 430, length of Egyptian Sojourn (Ex 12:40), + 130, Jacob's age when he entered Egypt (Gn 47:9), + 60, Isaac's age when Jacob was born (Gn 25:26), + 1, the pregnancy of Sarah with Isaac = 2071 BC.

(9) Carbon 14 dates for the end of the EB III period at both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira are much too early and have been disregarded by the excavators (Rast and Schaub 1980: 45–47). Similarly, C14 dates for the end of the succeeding EB IVA period of 2200 BC (Schaub 1993:136), may be too early.

(10) The end of EB III is given as 2350 BC in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (Dever 1992: 110), 2200 BC in the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (vo\. 4, p. 1529) (1993), and 2300 BC in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (vol. 5, p. 413) (1997).

(11) The grapes of Sodom and Gomorrah are referred to in Deuteronomy 32:32.


References
  

Archi, A. 1997  Ebla Texts. Pp. 87-89 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol 4, ed. E.M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Astour, M. 1992  Zoar. P. 1107 in The Archaeology of Ancient Israel, ed. A. Ben-Tor. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ben-Tor, A.
1992  The Early Bronze Age. Pp. 81–125 in The Archaeology of Ancient Israel, ed. A. Ben-Tor. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bietak, M.
1997  The Center of Hyksos Rule: Avaris (Tell el-Dab'a). Pp. 87–139 in The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives, ed. E. D. Oren. Philadelphia: The University Museum.

Bilkadi, Z.
1984  Bitumen—A History. Aramco World November–December: 2–9.
1994  Bulls From the Sea. Aramco World July–August: 20–31.

Clapp, F.G.
1936a  Geology and Bitumens of the Dead Sea Area. Bulletin of Petroleum Geologists 20: 881–909.
1936b  The Site of Sodom and Gomorrah. American Journal of Archaeology 40: 323–44.

Coogan, M.D.
1984  Numeira 1981. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 255: 75–81.

Dever, W. G.
1992  Palestine, Archaeology of (Bronze Iron Ages). Pp. 109–14 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, ed. D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.

Donahue, J.
1980  Geology. Pp. 47–52 in Preliminary Report of the 1979 Expedition to the Dead Sea Plain, Jordan, eds. W.E. Rast and R.T. Schaub. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 240: 21–61.
1984  Geologic Reconstruction of Numeira. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 255: 83–88.
1985  Hydrologic and Topographic Change During and After Early Bronze Occupation at Bab edh-Dhra. Pp. 131–40 in Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan 2, ed. A. Hadidi. Amman: Department of Antiquities.

Donner, H.
1992  The Mosaic Map of Madaba. Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharaos.

Gentry, P.J.
1999  Personal communication, October 1.

Harris, G.M., and Beardow, A.P.
1995  The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: A Geotechnical Perspective. Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology 28: 349–62.

Howard, D.M., Jr.
1984  Sodom and Gomorrah Revisited. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27: 385–400.
1988a  Siddim, Valley of. Pp. 499–500 in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, ed. G.W. Bromily. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.
1988b  Zoar. P. 1203 in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, ed. G.W. Bromily. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.

Kitchen, K.A.
1991  The Chronology of Ancient Egypt. World Archaeology 23:201–208.
1996  The Historical Chronology of Ancient Egypt, a Current Assessment. Acta Archaeologica 67: 1–13.

McCreery, D.W.
1980  Paleobotany. Pp. 52–53 in Preliminary Report of the 1979 Expedition to the Dead Sea Plain, Jordan, eds. W.E. Rast and R.T. Schaub. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 240: 21–61.
1981  Flotation of the Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira Plant Remains. Pp. 165–69 in The Southeastern Dead Sea Plain Expedition: An Interim Report of the 1977 Season, ed. W.E. Rast and R.T. Schaub. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 46, ed. J.A. Callaway. Cambridge MA: American Schools of Oriental Research.

MacDonald, B.
1997  Southern Ghors and Northeast 'Arabah. Pp. 64–66 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 5, ed. E.M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mazar, A.
1990  Archaeology of the Land of the Bible. New York:Doubleday.

Miller, J.M., and Hayes, J.H.
1986  A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Mulder, M.J.
1992  Sodom and Gomorrah. Pp. 99–103 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.

Neev, D., and Emery, K.O.
1995  The Destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jericho:
Geological, Climatological, and Archaeological Background.
New York: Oxford University Press.

Polotis, K.D.
1993  Deir 'Ain 'Abata. Pp. 336–38 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 1, ed. E. Stem. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rast, W.E.
1981  Settlement at Numeira. Pp. 35–44 in The Southeastern Dead Sea Plain Expedition: An Interim Report of the 1977 Season, ed. W.E. Rast and R.T. Schaub. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 46, ed. J.A. Callaway. Cambridge MA: American Schools of Oriental Research.
1987a  Bab edh-Dhra and the Origin of the Sodom Saga. Pp. 185–201 in Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation, ed. L.G. Perdue, L.E. Tombs and G.L. Johnson. Atlanta: John Knox.
1987b  Bronze Age Cities Along the Dead Sea. Archaeology 40: 42–49.
1992  Bab edh-Dhra. Pp. 559–61 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.

Rast, W.E., and Schaub, R.T.
1974  Survey of the Southeastern Plain of the Dead Sea, 1973. Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 19: 5–53, 175–85.
1978  A Preliminary Report of Excavations at Bab edh-Dhra', 1975. Pp. 1–32 in The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, vol. 43, ed. D.N. Freedman. Cambridge MA: American Schools of Oriental Research.
1980  Preliminary Report of the 1979 Expedition to the Dead Sea Plain, Jordan. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 240: 21–61.

Schaub, R.T.
1992  Safi. Pp. 895–96 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
1993  Bab edh-Dhra. Pp. 130–36 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 1, ed. E. Stem. New York: Simon & Schuster.
1997a  Bab edh-Dhra. Pp. 248–51 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 1, ed. E.M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University Press.
1997b  Southeast Dead Sea Plain. Pp. 62–64 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 5, ed. E.M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schaub, R.T., and Rast, W.E.
1984  Preliminary Report of the 1981 Expedition to the Dead Sea Plain, Jordan. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 254: 35–60.
1989  Bab edh-Dhra: Excavations in the Cemetery, Directed by Paul W. Lapp (1965–1967). Reports of the Expedition to the Dead Sea Plains, Jordan, 1. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

Shea, W.S.
1983  Two Palestinian Segments From the Eblaite Geographical Atlas. Pp. 589–612 in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth, ed. C.L. Meyers and M. O'Connor. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.
1988  Numeira. Archaeology and Biblical Research 1:12–23.

deVries, B.
1991  Archaeology in Jordan. American Journal of Archaeology 95:253–80.

Wood, B.G.
1974  Have Sodom and Gomorrah Been Found? Bible and Spade 3: 65–89.
1977  Sodom and Gomorrah Update. Bible and Spade 6:24–30.
1978  Specialists Help Reconstruct Life in the Cities of the Plain. Bible and Spade 7: 91–95.
1980  Results of the 1979 Season at Sodom and Gomorrah. Bible and Spade 9: 111–18.
1983  Sodom and Gomorrah Update. Bible and Spade 12:22–33.
1992  Kiln. Pp. 38–39 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.

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Comments Comment RSS

7/30/2008 9:52 AM #

What about the western location some people have promoted and who offer sulfer balls, salt formations as their evidence? is it possible that sodom and gomorrah were located on the western shores of the dead sea?

i am not challenging the above but would like to see the reasons why the west side is disqualified fromcontention.  i dismiss and reject the northern location as it just does not fit nor has any credibility but am curious about this other option.

dr. david tee - 7/30/2008 9:52:04 AM

9/8/2010 6:49 AM #

OUR GOD IS POWERFUL AND TRUE

abraham aina - 9/8/2010 6:49:17 AM

12/10/2011 9:52 AM #

FATHER YOU are great! I don't care what anyone says...my GOD lives and judges.

Emma - 12/10/2011 9:52:46 AM

5/12/2012 4:50 AM #

What an amazing story there is no shortage of them from the middle east. Thank you to the bibble and spade.

Believe in god first.

David Cohen - 5/12/2012 4:50:23 AM

3/20/2013 6:08 PM #

You can't carbon date burned rafter remains? So all you have to go on are transcribed verbal histories?

John B. Egan - 3/20/2013 6:08:01 PM

7/2/2013 9:29 PM #

To Mr. John B. Egan:

Sir, carbon dating is a very inaccurate science as it is anyhow, therefore, carbon dating burned rafter remains wouldn't give you any good information anyhow. Carbon dating has been proven time after time to be nothing more than a shot in the dark.  To bad too, however, the Holy Bible has been proven time and time again to be 100% accurate, even when science tries to dis-prove the Bible. The fact is, God provides only the most important information.  You might ask, "What information is that?".  The answer, to this question is best discovered by reading the Bible, which I will leave up to you.

The most important thing here, is not the location of the "Cities of Sin", just the reason why they were destroyed.  My God is the only reason why any of us are even breathing as He holds our very breath in his hand. Our lives, are a gift from God, and so is the Salvation that he offers each and every one of us.  Thank you Jesus for saving a Wretch, like me.

God Bless you all...

Dee - 7/2/2013 9:29:05 PM

1/6/2014 9:13 PM #

I am a little surprised that there was not at least a passing reference to the possibility that the destruction came from actual burning sulfur from the sky, rather that burning sulfur from an earthquake type event. The text could also mean actual burning sulfur originating from the sky.

D. Thigpen - 1/6/2014 9:13:40 PM

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