Sodom and Gomorrah are two ancient cities mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Both these cities, according to biblical tradition, were judged by God because of their sexual wickedness. These cities were, according to researchers, situated in Moab, an area east of the southern edge of the Dead Sea (1). Various excavations suggest that some ruins in the area may fit in well with such destruction. According to Genesis 19:24: “Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens.”
There have been various theories to how these cities were destroyed, likely by a natural disaster. One theory has it that they were wrecked by an earthquake between 2100 and 1900 BC, which could have unleashed showers of steaming tar (2). This is possible since parallel to these cities is fault line where two large plates of Earth exert great pressure on each other which has caused a number of earthquakes in the region. This pressure can force subterranean matter, such as magma, or bitumen into the air. These may be ignited by lightening or some other natural source and the flaming debris fell back to earth (3).
Another theory is that the cities, and area, were destroyed by the plume of a meteor that crashed in the Alps. This theory is argued to be supported by a cuneiform tablet called the Planisphere. The Planisphere is thought to provide evidence of the sky around the time of the supposed disaster, and shows a moving object that could be seen from Earth (4). Further, the researchers claim to have discovered an ash layer containing human bone fragments, which they believe indicates a meteor airburst and sudden end to the civilization in this area. According to Atkinson:
“Researchers believe the tablet, which seemingly describes a cataclysmic event, may account for the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah,” and that as a result of ground heating “would be enough to ignite any flammable material – including human hair and clothes. It is probable more people died under the plume than in the Alps due to the impact blast” (5).
Archaeological excavation has found that the locations of Bab edh-Dhra, Numeira, al-Safi, Feifa and Khanazir, all located close to the Dead Sea, have evidence of burning and traces of sulphur (6). These finds appear to match the biblical description. According to Professor Michael Coogan the entire areas of Bab edh-Drha and Numeira are covered with a spongy ash (from 4-20 inches in depth), which suggests that these two cities evidence clear signs of destruction. (7)
A further possible candidate for the original Sodom city could be at the Tall el Hammam dig site. The excavation commenced in 2006 under the direction of Steven Collins, and was a joint cooperation between Trinity Southwest University and the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Collins is the Distinguished Professor of Archaeology at Trinity Southwest University. This site is in close proximity to the Dead Sea, around 14 kilometers away and seems to match well with the biblical descriptions of the lands of Sodom (8). According to the excavation team evidence of glazed artifacts such as pottery and rocks as well as destruction have been found (9).
Later ancient historians such Greek historiographer Strabo (born 64 – 63 BC) informs us that “there were once thirteen inhabited cities in that which Sodom was the metropolis,” and identifies a limestone and salt hill at the south western tip of the Dead Sea, as well as Kharbet Usdum ruins near to the site of biblical Sodom (10). Another ancient Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (born 37 AD) identifies the Dead Sea in close proximity to the ancient biblical city of Sodom (11). Flavius refers to the lake by its Greek name, Asphaltites, and according to Rabbi Reznick, “It is of interest to note that Josephus writes that the Lake Asphaltites was formed as a result of the devastation that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (12).
One cannot confirm or refute the Bible’s alleged supernatural judgment by God from looking at the historicity of this event. However, one can hold that the Genesis account is almost certainly based upon a tradition that has some grounding in history. But what to make of the other details such as Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, Abraham’s bartering with God over those within the city, the visitation of angels to Sodom, must be left open. However, archaeological evidence of sulphur deposits and various ruins within proximity to the Dead Sea strongly suggests that some natural disaster certainly occurred there.
1. Wenham, G., Motyer, A., Carson, D. & France, R. 1994. New Bible Commentary map. p. 75.
2. Jean-Pierre, I. 2007. The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas. p. 71.
3. Neev, D. & Emery, K. 1995. The Destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jericho: Geological, Climatological, and Archaeological Background. p. 13-14.
4. Atkinson, N. 2008. Evidence of Asteroid Impact For Sodom and Gomorrah. Available.
5. Atkinson, N. 2008.
6. Reznick, L. 2008. Biblical Archaeology: Sodom and Gomorrah. Available.
7. Coogan, M. 1984. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. p. 80.
8. Collins, S. & Scott, L. 2013. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City.
9. Collins, S., Hamdan, K. & Gary Byers. 2009. Tall al-Hammam: Preliminary Report on Four Seasons of Excavation (2006-2009). p. 385-414.
10. de Saulcy, F. 1853. Voyage autour de la mer Morte et dans les terres bibliques.
11. Flavius, J. 93. Antiquities of the Jews. Book 1: Chapter 9.
12. Reznick, L. 2008. Does Archeological Data Support the Biblical Story?