The Sinful Sodom and Gomorrah: Real Historic Cities or Biblical Myth?
Sodom and Gomorrah are two famous cities mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, and there are few who haven’t heard of them at one point in their life. Supposedly obliterated in a rain of fire, these two cities are reported to have suffered the wrath of God for their sins, debauchery, and egoism. But did they really exist? It’s time to put the biblical traditions aside, and to search the lands by the Dead Sea and discover the remnants of these ancient cities.
“By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. Then 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, destroying all those living in the cities - and also the vegetation in the land.” - Genesis 19:23-25
The Facts We Know About Sodom and Gomorrah
The Bible’s Book of Genesis paints a stark picture about the fate of these two fabled cities. As far as biblical sites go, both Sodom and Gomorrah are possibly the most famous of all. In Genesis 13:12, they are mentioned as two of the five “cities of the Plain”, which were named in Genesis 14:2, as being the towns of Zeboiim, Admah, and Bela (known as Zoar). Along with Sodom and Gomorrah, these five towns were likely situated in the south of the land of Canaan. Mentioned in the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible, the Hadith, the Quran, and deuterocanonical books, these cities were always associated with sin, depravity, rape, egoism, and all out decadent behavior. And for that, they had to suffer the wrath of the heavens. The cities are generally associated with the Dead Sea region, but sadly, their precise locations were never truly pinpointed.
‘Lot’s wife’ – According to legend, this rock salt column on Mount Sodom, on the coast of the Dead Sea in Israel, is believed to be the petrified wife of Lot. Lot’s wife was said to have been turned into a pillar of salt for looking back to see the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as she and her family were fleeing. Source: svarshik / Adobe Stock
So it was, that Zeboiim, Admah, Sodom and Gomorrah , were all decimated for their sinfulness - apparently in a “rain of fire”. The only town to be spared from such fate was Zoar (Bela), thanks to Abraham and Lot - whose story is well known from the Bible. The Torah of the Hebrew Bible gives even more details, stating that these five cities were allied with one another and situated on the plain of the River Jordan. The Book of Genesis compares this valley to the fabled Garden of Eden, as it was bountiful, fertile, and flourishing. It could be that thanks to this bounty, the five “cities of the Plain” gradually ascended to prosperity, and from there, descended into depravity. In a time of religious purity and an emphasis on humility, it could be true that there were historical cities that were destroyed, either by man or by nature. Such an event could easily be ascribed as “divine wrath”.
It is logical that we mention the Ancient Roman Pompeii in this context, as it can easily be likened to Sodom and Gomorrah. It too was a city known for debauchery, sin, and depravity, and for this it apparently suffered “divine wrath”. However, that divine wrath was simply the work of nature, as a volcano erupted and obliterated Pompeii and its citizens. Could Sodom and Gomorrah have suffered a similar fate?
A Dreadful Natural Calamity or “God’s Wrath”?
Over time scholarly and public views on these cities diverged. Some associated their location and the Biblical story with the now-wasteland regions along the Dead Sea shore, while others characterized the tale as “purely mythical”. However, following the descriptions by several key scholars, Burton MacDonald, Professor Emeritus in the Religious Studies department of Canada’s St. Francis Xavier University and a biblical archaeologist specializing in the archaeology of Jordan, established a view that Sodom and Gomorrah are stories of an “actual natural catastrophe to which were added Israelite and non-Israelite traditions and the authors’ perspectives on punishment and God’s Justice”.
Sodom and Gomorrah, and the other cities of the Plain, are first mentioned in the Bible in the description of the Canaanites and their territories. These were the original inhabitants of the Promised Land, whose territory “extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha”. After God’s destruction of the cities through “fire and brimstone”, they are repeatedly mentioned in connection with depravity and sinfulness, serving as a reminder as to what awaits those who sin.
“So that the generation to come of your children that shall rise up after you, and the stranger that shall come from a far land, shall say, when they see the plagues of that land, and the sicknesses which the Lord hath laid upon it; And that the whole land thereof is brimstone, and salt, and burning, that is not sown, nor beareth, nor any grass groweth therein, like the overthrow of Sodom, and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim, which the Lord overthrew in his anger, and in his wrath.” - Deuteronomy 29:22-23
Mount Sodom in the Dead Sea region. Source: pokku / Adobe Stock
Searching for Clues in the Deserts of the Dead Sea
Still, tales are tales, myth is myth, and factual history is altogether another thing. Over time, many have suggested diverse proposals and attempted to locate the actual proof and remnants of the five Canaanite cities of the Plain, in the landscapes around the Dead Sea. Of course, as the region is very ancient and contains many ruins, scholars proposed various possibilities, however, no location has been positively identified with either Sodom or Gomorrah. Nevertheless, history did record several important mentions about these towns. For example, Strabo, one of the most famous ancient Greek historiographers, wrote that local inhabitants of the region, settled near the town of Moasada, told that “there once were thirteen inhabited cities in that region, of which Sodom was the metropolis.” Strabo was also one of the first to propose a location for that city, placing it at a prominent hill of limestone and salt, close to the southwestern tip of the Dead Sea. The hill is known as Kharbet Usdum (Har Sedom in Hebrew), and contains ruins nearby. Strabo believed this was the Biblical Sodom.
One unique clue was discovered by the renowned Archibald Henry Sayce, British pioneering Assyriologist and linguist of the Oxford University. He translated a unique poem in ancient Akkadian, which was written from the point of view of a person who fled from one of the cities that were destroyed in a rain of fire. The cities’ names were not mentioned, but the tale and the region could point to Sodom and Gomorrah. Could the “rain of fire” suggest a meteoric shower or a similar natural phenomenon?
In the 1970’s significant new archeological work in the Dead Sea region helped to shed light on some other ancient ruins that could be either Sodom or Gomorrah. Renowned archaeologists, Walter Rast and Thomas Schaub, spent several years researching such sites. The foremost possibility was the so-called Bab edh-Dhra site, a ruin of a Bronze Age city on the southern edges near the Dead Sea which the archeologists suggest was the ancient Sodom. However, a definitive conclusion is not possible - guesswork remains the only tool in attempting to locate Sodom. This was however, not the only option - other possibilities included sites at Khirbet al-Khanazir, Numeira, Feifah, and al-Saif, which are mostly “tell” sites, i.e. towns on big mounds or hills. While all of these locations could be one of the four destroyed cities of the plain, a certain answer cannot be provided. The historicity of these towns remains a mystery.
The early Bronze gate of Bab edh-Dhra overlooking the southern end of the Dead Sea. ( CC by SA 4.0 )
Ruins are Aplenty, Yet We’re None the Wiser
Nevertheless, as time went on, new archeological discoveries once more raised the possibility of locating the site of these cities. In 2006, new archeological excavations began at a site known as Tall el-Hammam , a location that overlooks the valley of the River Jordan. This site, situated some 9 miles (14 km) from the Dead Sea, brought new insights and possibilities. The dig was headed by Steven Collins, who stated that the site fits the biblical descriptions of Sodom and its surroundings. The dig at this location is still ongoing, and is yielding some interesting finds - however, nothing definitive was discovered that would be connected with Sodom and Gomorrah. What is more, some scholars believe that the Tall el-Hammam site does not fit into the existing chronology of events in the Bible and is thus not a good possibility for Sodom.
The archaeological site of Tall el-Hammam, Jordan that overlooks the Jordan Valley. ( CC by SA 4.0 )
A Rain of Fire
If Sodom and Gomorrah did actually exist in ancient times, then what foul fate befell them? What was that “wrath of God”, that “rain of fire”? Some scholars proposed that the biblical story does have some basis in history, and that some kind of natural disaster could have happened in this region.
A theory suggests that the Dead Sea region has been devastated by a strong earthquake sometimes between 2100 and 1900 BC. Such an event could have started a firestorm within the city or set forth showers of steaming tar. The region is prone to earthquakes, especially along the Jordan River Rift Valley which has plenty of seismic activity. However, no contemporary or later writings can give evidence for this theory.
Other scientists, such as Phillip Sylvia from the Trinity Southwest University, have been conducting research into possible meteoric activity at the time. This theory suggests that a large meteorite, a violent meteor shower, or a similar cosmic “airburst” could have caused the devastation of the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah.
Could the Biblical “wrath of God” be a wrath of man? Perhaps the five cities of the plain suffered destruction not at the hands of god, but at the hands of man? It is likely that some enemy of these towns - if they existed - resorted to war and destruction to utterly obliterate its opponent. It could be likely that either of these cities have been simply razed to the ground through war, an act which was later described as the punishment from the heavens. However, this is also just a guess - solid evidence has not yet appeared.
"The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah" by François de Nomé (called Monsù Desiderio), 1593 AD
Paying the Price for Decadence and Sin
Early into the archeological discoveries related to these towns, some scholars suggested that ancient cuneiform tablets could bear the names of the towns, which would certainly make them historical. Giovanni Pettinato stated in 1976 that a newly discovered ancient library, during the excavations at the ancient city of Ebla, yielded several cuneiform tablets that bear the names of “five cities of the plain”, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela. Two of these names are transliterated as si-da-mu (possibly Sodom), and ì-ma-ar (possibly Gomorrah). At the time, the theory was popular and accepted amongst some scholars, but later proved to be of dubious accuracy. Si-da-mu, was supposedly located in Syria, and thus did not fully correspond to Sodom, while the ì-ma-ar inscription was identified with the nearby Emar, another ancient city. Thus, it was that this theory was also disproved - and the location of these biblical cities continued to be a mystery.
Either way, it is possible that we will never know the truth about these two cities. Time is ruthless. What once were sprawling cities of enigmatic and unique ancient times, are now barely discernible mud rocks in the deserts - there is nothing that gives us insights into their fate or long history. For all we know any one of them could have been Sodom or Gomorrah, and we’d be none the wiser. Either way, if biblical accounts are to be believed, these towns were a thorn in the eye of many. The sins and the debauchery for which they were destroyed were the only thing they left for posterity. But whether they really existed, and what was their true fate - remains an enigma to this very day.
Top image: Bible narratives about Sodom and Gomorrah. Christian bible character. By artinspiring / Adobe Stock
By Aleksa Vučković
Fields, W. W. 1997. Sodom and Gomorrah: History and Motif in Biblical Narrative. A&C Black.
Loader, J. A. 1990. A Tale of Two Cities: Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament, Early Jewish and Early Christian Traditions. Peeters Publishing.
MacDonald, B. 2000. East of the Jordan - Territories and Sites of the Hebrew Scriptures. American Schools of Oriental Research.