Deborah Hurn | January 14, 2022 | Evidence
Summary: Numerous media reports have recently claimed the biblical city of Sodom was located north of the Dead Sea and destroyed by a ‘cosmic airburst’ from a meteor. Part 1 of this 2-part update examines these proposals more closely.
Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom – Genesis 13:12 (NRSV)
New Evidence for the Destruction of Sodom?
On September 20, 2021, the open access journal Scientific Reports published a paper by a team of twenty-one scientists led by Ted Bunch of Northern Arizona University. The paper is entitled “A Tunguska Sized Airburst Destroyed Tall el‑Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea”. Tunguska in Siberia is where, in 1908, a massive blast flattened some 2000 square kilometers of uninhabited forest. No crater was discovered, so scientists explain the strange phenomenon as the result of a meteor explosion some 5-10 km above land.
Tall al-Hammam, the subject of the above paper, is a large city-mound on the eastern side of the southern Jordan Valley in the modern state of Jordan. Bunch and his coauthors make the case that the ancient town was destroyed in a cosmic airburst above the northern basin of the Dead Sea.
Intriguingly, the paper cites the Bible as possibly containing a written record of the destruction: “We consider whether oral traditions about the destruction of this urban city by a cosmic object might be the source of the written version of Sodom in Genesis.” This sensational proposal tying cosmic science to biblical history led to the paper being widely featured and discussed across many media outlets.
Since 2005, archeologist Steven Collins at Trinity Southwest University has been director of excavations at Tall al-Hammam. Within a few years, Collins was confidently identifying the tell as the biblical city of Sodom, and, by 2014, proposing its destruction by meteor.
According to the biblical narrative of Abraham’s life-story, God destroyed Sodom and three neighboring towns in a fiery cataclysm because of their godless lifestyle (Gen. 18:20-21; 19:24-25).
Tall al-Hammam’s destruction layer is dated to the end of Middle Bronze Age II (typically dated c. 1650-1550 BC), too late for Abraham’s era which by the standard chronology is commonly connected to the Middle Bronze Age I (also known as the Intermediate Bronze Age, typically dated c. 2300-2000 BC).
Hence, the authors of the airburst proposal suggest that the meteor event inspired the biblical story of Sodom, which, by source-critical theories of the Pentateuch, was not composed until the late Israelite or Persian era more than a thousand years after the destruction of the city. Already it is apparent that Collins’ explanation of events has moved away from biblical and traditional understandings in several ways.
Where is Sodom?
The case for a cosmic event over the Dead Sea in the biblical period is a matter of debate for experts in the field. While numerous scientific questions arise about whether Tall al-Hammam’s Middle Bronze II stratum suggests a meteoritic cataclysm, the main focus of this article will be the geographical question of whether Sodom was located north or south of the Dead Sea.
The five “cities of the Plain”— Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Zoar (Gen. 13:12; 19:29) — are traditionally located along the southeastern side of the southern basin of the Dead Sea, with Sodom at Bab adh-Dhra, Gomorrah at Tall Numayra, Admah and Zeboiim unknown, and Zoar within the modern town of as-Safi in the fertile alluvial fan of the Zered River, Wadi al-Hasa.
Evidence for the location of biblical Sodom may be collated from biblical and extra-biblical texts, by which Tall al-Hammam’s geographical suitability as Sodom may also be assessed.
The general location of Sodom may be deduced from several sources:
- the biblical ‘Table of Nations’ (Gen. 10)
- the narrative of Lot’s migration to Sodom (Gen. 13)
- the account of an invasion by four northern kings and their battle with the Sodom alliance in the time of Abraham (Gen. 14)
- the description of the destruction of the cities by fire (Gen. 18-19)
- a reference by the prophet Ezekiel to Sodom (Ezek. 16)
- geographical and archeological evidence regarding the events as related in the Bible
- and the conclusions of early historians.
Genesis 10: The extent of the territory of the Canaanites seems to describe a simple triangle of extremities: Sidon in the north, Gaza in the southwest, and the cities of Sodom in the southeast.
And the territory of the Canaanites 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 (Gen. 10:19).
Genesis 13: The narrative of Lot’s migration to Sodom describes a journey from the region of Bethel in the central Hill Country (v. 3) eastward into the Rift Valley, specifically the “plain of the Jordan.”
Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward; thus they separated from each other (Gen. 13: 10-11).
While it is said that Lot traveled eastward on his journey from Bethel to reach Zoar/Sodom, this does not necessarily mean that Sodom was due east of Bethel. Biblical Hebrew does not have a term for “southeast” so anything east of a longitude lying along Canaan’s east border would qualify as east. Additionally, the text implies a passage of time for Lot and does not preclude further migration to the region south of the Dead Sea (Sea of Salt), and may even suggest it:
Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom (Gen. 13:12).
Genesis 14: The account of the battle between the four northern kings with the five allied kings of the Sodom district identifies the battleground as “the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea)” (v. 3). Logic would require, therefore, that at least part of the present Dead Sea basin was above water at the time of the battle. The invading kings advanced on the Sodom alliance from a place called Hazazon-tamar:
Then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and subdued all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who lived in Hazazon-tamar (Gen. 14:7).
A later battle account identifies Hazazon-tamar as En-gedi, a well-known oasis on the west side of the Dead Sea (1 Sam. 23:29):
Messengers came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; already they are at Hazazon-tamar” (that is, En-gedi) (2 Chron. 20:2).
Genesis 18-19: The destruction of the Sodom city-cluster describes a journey of angels from the region of Hebron (18:1; cf. Gen. 13:18) towards Sodom (18:22), presumably eastward to the Dead Sea area of the Rift Valley. Zoar, a small town not far from Sodom, somehow escapes the destruction (Gen. 19:20-22).
Ezekiel 16 provides the only subsequent biblical reference offering a geographical datum locating Sodom to the south of Jerusalem:
Your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters (Ez. 16:46).
Geographical evidence includes the definition and use of the term kikkar, the present location of bitumen, sulfur, and salt deposits (Gen. 14:10; 19:24), and possible causes of a catastrophic conflagration in the Rift Valley.
Archeological evidence includes the known locations of other biblical sites, proposed locations for unknown sites, evidence for sudden unusual destruction, and chronological and historical considerations.
Historical evidence includes the records of historians from the first to the sixth centuries who believed that Sodom was underwater near En-gedi in the southwest quadrant of the Dead Sea.
The Biblical Kikkar
Much of Collins’ case for locating Sodom in the southern Jordan Valley rests on the understanding of the term כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן kikkar ha-yarden, commonly translated “plain of the Jordan.” The word kikkar, meaning “round”, suggests a disc or plaza.
When Lot and Abraham parted ways in the vicinity of Bethel (Gen. 13:3), Lot looked towards the well-watered kikkar ha-yarden (v. 10, 11), and journeyed eastwards, settling among arey ha-kikkar עָרֵי הַכִּכָּרי the “cities of the Plain” (v. 12).
Collins interprets this travel sequence to indicate the southern Jordan Valley which he maintains is round in shape (but which Bryant Wood states is rectangular) and well-watered by the many wadis that enter the kikkar from the mountain ridges on each side to join the winding Jordan River in the center. Pointing out the mention of the Jordan River in the context of the Sodom account, Collins locates the cities of the Plain in the southern Jordan Valley, that is, north of the Dead Sea.
Biblical reference to the kikkar seems to include Zoar, the southernmost of the five cities of Sodom:
… the plain הַכִּכָּר of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 13:10).
… the Negeb, and the Plain הַכִּכָּר—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar (Deut. 34:3).
The mosaic map of Madaba (sixth century) shows the town of Zoar (“Zoora”) on the south-east shore of the Dead Sea near the mouth of a major river labeled [Z]ared, indicating the Zered, but for which Collins mounts a vigorous case as the Arnon River farther north. However, other maps and documents of the Classical and Medieval periods likewise place “Zoara” on the southeast side of the Dead Sea in the rich alluvial fan of the Zered.
To resolve the apparent conflict of biblical terminology for the kikkar, geologists David Neev and Kenneth Emery distinguish between the usage of the terms “all the kikkar of the Jordan” referring to the entire scope of the Dead Sea basin (Gen. 13:10, 11) and “all the kikkar” or “cities of the kikkar” not mentioning the Jordan River (Gen. 13:12; 19:25). The NRSV seems to also recognise this distinction by giving a capital P to “Plain” only in those instances that reference Sodom.
In Moses’ survey of the Promised Land in the exodus era, Jericho and Zoar mark the extremities of the kikkar, so the Plain must have included the Dead Sea basin. Jericho is not mentioned in the Sodom story; indeed, it does not appear in the ancestral narratives at all.
In the Israelite kingdom era, the term “plain of the Jordan” is also applied to the Jabbok alluvial fan in the central Jordan Valley “between Succoth and Zarethan” (1 Kings 7:46 [2 Chron. 4:17]; cf. Ps. 60:6; 108:7; Succoth, cf. Gen. 33:17; Zarethan, cf. Josh. 3:16).
The geographical term kikkar, therefore, seems to indicate a wider section of the Rift Valley caused by incoming perennial rivers whose alluvial fans create and support fertile plains. Historical geographer Menashe Har-el counts three kikkars of the Jordan river system:
1. south of the Dead Sea (Valley of Siddim, Gen. 14:10)
2. north of the Dead Sea (Valley of Jericho, Deut. 34:3)
3. the central Jordan Valley (Valley of Succoth, Ps. 60:6)
Whether by deduction from the biblical passages or from other traditions, Classical historians indicate Sodom in the vicinity of the south basin of the Dead Sea. Strabo (64 BCE to 23 CE) quotes Posidonius (c. 135-50 BCE) in his description of the Dead Sea region, giving the location of Sodom in the area of Masada, a natural fortress formation about 15 km south of En-gedi (Erdbeschreibung 16.2.43).
Josephus (37 to c. 100 CE) and Eusebius (c. 260 to 340 CE) both state that the cities of the Plain were located south of Lake Asphaltites, the Dead Sea (Antiquities 1.11.4; Onomasticon 42, 1f; 153, 15f). Josephus suggests that the area of the Pentapolis (the five cities) are now submerged (Antiquities 1.9), as does Stephanus of Byzantium (Ethnica, c. 530 CE) who locates “Engada” (En-gedi) near “Sodoma.”
Dion of Chrysostomos (c. 40 CE), as cited by Synesius of Cyrene (c. 370 CE), offers the detail that a settlement of Essenes was “located by the Dead Sea in central Palestine, very near to Sodom”. Pliny the Elder (writing 77-79 CE) connects a group of Essenes to En-gedi (Naturalis Historiae 5.15, 73), thereby suggesting an Essene presence some 32 km south of the famous Essene center at Qumran near the northern shore of the Dead Sea.
In the same tradition and after discussing the Sodom and Gomorrah area, Solinus (3rd century?) locates the southern Essenes in the “interior of Judea… looking westward” (Collectanea, 35.9-12), perhaps implying high ground above En-gedi.
The Dead Sea
In 2002, Marcus Laudien (an electrical and economic engineer) noted several hydro-geological studies indicating that the Dead Sea water level was lower and thus the lake was smaller in the Late Chalcolithic era to the end of the Early Bronze Age. Hence, he revisited the views of Classical historians locating Sodom near En-gedi and explored the possibility that the lake may have not have been salty and the southern basin may have been a fertile agricultural region.
For the tell of Sodom, Laudien proposed a small elevation 480 m bsl on the sea-bed of the northern basin of the Dead Sea, 4 km south of En-gedi, not far from the mouth of the Nahal Hever gorge. Part of Laudien’s argument for locating Sodom to the southwest of the Dead Sea is the walking time from Hebron to Sodom according to the biblical account of the three angels’ same-day visit to Abraham’s camp at Mamre (Gen. 18:1, 22; 19:1).
Another argument, although anachronistic according to the standard chronology, is the evidence at En-Gedi of a metallurgically advanced Chalcolithic civilization which may indicate a sizable population in the vicinity.
Under present conditions, however, most of the water around the Dead Sea basin arrives on the eastern side via perennial rivers that drain the high Edomite and Moabite plateau; relatively little water arrives on the western side. The hills between Hebron and the Dead Sea basin are in a rain-shadow so that the wadis are usually dry and saline, with the perennial fresh flow in Nahal En-gedi an exception. For urban habitation and agriculture, therefore, the southeastern side of the Dead Sea basin seems more likely than the southwestern side.
Accordingly, when the four northern kings arrived at En-gedi (Hazazon-tamar), the five kings from the Sodom region probably came out against them (north-)westward across the Plain and they battled in the Vale of Siddim somewhere on the southwestern side of the Dead Sea basin (Gen. 14:3). This region was a treacherous place owing to bitumen pits, as it is now with sinkholes forming in the salty crust as the water-table falls. The detail that the warriors of the cities of the Plain fell into bitumen pits indicates they were in unfamiliar territory (Gen. 14:10).
The biblical and historical case for locating Sodom and its sister-cities to the south of the Dead Sea, whether on the southwest or southeast side, is consistent with the geographical features of the region.
In Part 2 we will consider the campaign of four northern kings against Sodom in Abraham’s time, with a new route-theory advanced by David Barrett of the BibleMappers blog. We will also consider the traditional explanation for its destruction—a subterranean explosion of hydrocarbons triggered by an earthquake in the Rift Valley. Finally, we will survey the biblical records of the southern Jordan Valley for any evidence that this 22-km-wide valley ever contained the five cities of the Plain.
 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 11, no. 1 (September 20, 2021): 18632, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-97778-3.
 Recent standardization in Jordanian scholarship has eliminated the use of the English letter ‘e’ in transliteration. Thus ‘Tell’ in a proper noun is now rendered ‘Tall’ and ‘el-’ is ‘al-’. The common noun for a city-mound in Transjordan is still ‘tell’. ADAJ, “System of Transliteration from Arabic,” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, Annual, 39 (1995): 6.
 Bunch et al., “A Tunguska Sized Airburst,” 6.
 Ariella Marsden, “Did the Destruction of This Middle Bronze Age City Inspire Sodom?,” The Jerusalem Post, September 22, 2021, https://www.jpost.com/archaeology/did-the-destruction-of-this-middle-bronze-age-city-inspire-the-story-of-sodom-679997; Robert Lea, “How a Meteor May Have Destroyed Ancient City and Inspired Biblical Tale of Sodom,” Newsweek, September 21, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/meteor-may-have-destroyed-ancient-city-inspired-biblical-tale-sodom-1631148; Nathan Steinmeyer, “Was Biblical Sodom Destroyed by a Cosmic Blast?,” Biblical Archaeology Society, October 1, 2021, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/was-biblical-sodom-destroyed-by-a-cosmic-blast/.
 Steven Collins, “Where Is Sodom? The Case for Tell El-Hammam,” Biblical Archaeology Review 39, no. 2 (April 2013): 33–38, 40–41, 70; The Search for Sodom & Gomorrah, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4Ui_MbDzMQ.
 The hypothesis originated with Collins. William Briggs reproduces sections of an interview with Collins in 2014 which has since been updated without reference to an airburst. “The City Of Sodom Possibly Identified (On Evidence),” William M. Briggs (blog), August 13, 2016, https://wmbriggs.com/post/19473/; citing “Making the Case for Sodom,” Popular Archaeology, June 5, 2014.
 Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 30, table 2.
 The placement of Abraham in this era can be traced to Glueck, with support from Albright. Nelson Glueck, “The Seventh Season of Exploration in the Negeb,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 152 (December 1958): 20; William F. Albright, “Abram the Hebrew: A New Archaeological Interpretation,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 163 (October 1961): 44.
 Co-author, Christopher R. Moore, “A Giant Space Rock Demolished an Ancient Middle Eastern City and Everyone in It – Possibly Inspiring the Biblical Story of Sodom,” The Conversation, September 20, 2021, http://theconversation.com/a-giant-space-rock-demolished-an-ancient-middle-eastern-city-and-everyone-in-it-possibly-inspiring-the-biblical-story-of-sodom-167678.
 Gordon J. Wenham, “Pentateuchal Studies Today,” Themelios 22, no. 1 (1996): 3–13.
 Physicist (and Bible skeptic) Mark Boslough attacks Collin’s theory from multiple angles: “Sodom Meteor Strike Claims Should Be Taken with a Pillar of Salt | Skeptical Inquirer,” Skeptical Inquirer (blog), December 28, 2021, https://skepticalinquirer.org/2021/12/sodom-meteor-strike-claims-should-be-taken-with-a-pillar-of-salt/; Some archaeologists have also disputed the supposed unique nature of the Hammam destruction layer: Gordon Govier, “Sodom Destroyed by Meteor, Scientists Say. Biblical Archaeologists Not Convinced.,” Christianity Today, September 24, 2021, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/september/sodom-meteor-biblical-archaeology-tall-el-hammam-airburst.html.
 Bryant G. Wood, “Locating Sodom: A Critique of the Northern Proposal,” – Associates for Biblical Research, February 26, 2016, https://biblearchaeology.org/research/chronological-categories/patriarchal-era/3217-locating-sodom-a-critique-of-the-northern-proposal.
 e.g. S. Collins, C. M. Kobs, and M. C. Luddeni, The Tall Al-Hammam Excavations, Volume 1: An Introduction to Tall al-Hammam: Seven Seasons (2005–2011) of Ceramics and Eight Seasons (2005–2012) of Artifacts from Tall al-Hammam (University Park, PA: Penn State, 2015), 38–39.
 Michael Avi-Yonah, The Madaba Mosaic Map: With Introduction and Commentary (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1954).
 Steven Collins, “Locating Zoar,” Biblical Archaeology Society, September 28, 2020, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/archaeology-today/biblical-archaeology-topics/locating-zoar/.
 Konstantinos D. Politis, Zoara, the Southern Ghor of Jordan (Amman: ACOR, 2020), https://publications.acorjordan.org/books/zoara-the-southern-ghor-of-jordan/.
 David Neev and Kenneth O. Emery, The Destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jericho: Geological, Climatological, and Archaeological Background (New York: Oxford University, 1995), 123.
 Menashe Har-El, “The Pride of the Jordan: The Jungle of the Jordan,” Biblical Archaeologist 41, no. 2 (1978): 66–67.
 Dion 3.2, Synesius from Cyrene, Dion Chrysostomos (Berlin: Akademie, 1959), 15.
 Robert A. Kraft, “Pliny on Essenes, Pliny on Jews,” Dead Sea Discoveries 8, no. 3 (2001): 256–57 n. 2.
 Marcus Laudien, “Sodom and the Dead Sea,” The Journal of the Ancient Chronology Forum 9 (2002): 85.
 The Genesis narrative mentions no lake, whether Salt Sea, Arabah Sea, or Sea of the Plain. For discussion of the implications, see George M. Grena, “LMLK Blogspot: The Kikkar Dialogues,” LMLK Blogspot (blog), May 25, 2014, https://lmlk.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-kikkar-dialogues.html; See also the debates under all the BiblePlaces blogs dealing with Sodom, e.g. Bill Schlegel, “Biblical Problems with Locating Sodom at Tall El-Hammam,” BiblePlaces (blog), January 4, 2012, https://blog.bibleplaces.com/2012/01/biblical-problems-with-locating-sodom.html.
 Laudien, “Sodom,” 88.
 Laudien, 86.
 Todd Bolen, “The Best Article on En-Gedi,” BiblePlaces (blog), August 20, 2019, https://blog.bibleplaces.com/2019/08/the-best-article-on-en-gedi.html; See also Bolen’s “Arguments Against Locating Sodom at Tall El-Hammam,” Biblical Archaeology Society, August 10, 2021, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-sites/arguments-against-locating-sodom-at-tall-el-hammam/.
 Abigail Klein Leichman, “What Next for the Dead Sea?,” ISRAEL21c, October 19, 2021, https://www.israel21c.org/what-next-for-the-dead-sea/.
 For a preview, see David P. Barrett, “The Battle at the Valley of Siddim,” Bible Mapper (blog), July 19, 2021, https://biblemapper.com/blog/index.php/2021/07/19/the-battle-at-the-valley-of-siddim/.
TOP PHOTO: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (credit: John Martin, 1852, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
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