The destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the most dramatic examples of divine punishment in the Bible.
Abraham Bargains with God
In Genesis 18, Abraham is sitting outside of his tent and is then visited by three angels appearing in human form (18:1-2). Abraham, as we learn previously in chapter 12 of Genesis, was selected by God to be the ancestor of a great nation, the inheritor of a land, and that through him all nations will be blessed. Abraham is therefore an important person in God’s story and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in particular. One of the angels informs Abraham that he or God has come to investigate reports of sinful behavior in Sodom and Gomorrah,
“Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know” (18:20-21).
If indeed their sin is so grievous God will destroy the cities. God and Abraham have a close relationship. Abraham bargains with God and God listens to him. Abraham is confident that the “judge of all the Earth” (18:25) will do what is right. Eventually, God agrees that he will not destroy the cities if he can find at least ten good people within them.
Lot and the Strangers
The story then moves to the city of Sodom, where Abraham’s nephew, Lot, invites two strangers (angels) to stay in his home rather than in the town square (19:3). Lot insists that they come to his house and he then prepares for them a meal. Later that night, however, the men of Sodom pay a visit,
“Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them” (19:4-5).
Lot attempts to reason with the men and instead offers his two virgin daughters to them instead (19:8). But the men refuse the offer and attempt to break down the front door only to then have the angels strike the crowd with blindness,
“Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door” (19:11).
The angels then warn Lot and his family that God is about to destroy the city for its sins: “The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it” (19:12-14).
Lot takes their advice and despite some skepticism from his family flees with his wife, two daughters, and the angels. God then rains down fire and brimstone on the two cities: “Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens” (19:24). The angels warn not to look back but Lot’s wife glances behind her and is turned to a pillar of salt (19:26). The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is wholesale as the following day Abraham examines the land of the plain and sees nothing but “dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace” (19:28).
What was this Sin?
The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah have traditionally been viewed as homosexuality (1). It is also from the word Sodom that the word “sodomy” is derived.
Other biblical passages about the sins of these cities speak about the abandonment of justice and neglect of the poor (see Isaiah 3:8-15; Ezekiel 16:48-50) and some scholars have argued that the sins were not homosexuality but “the inhospitable treatment of resident aliens and sojourners at its worst, through the sexual humiliation of rape, linked with the wickedness of idolatry” (2).
The story teaches that God is prepared to be bargained with and reward the righteous and save the penitent. God is wrathful against sin but exercises mercy if he so wishes. Christians, particularly conservative groups, sometimes view phenomena in the modern world as evidence of evils warranting God’s wrath. Things like drugs, homosexual practice, extra-marital sex, and pornography might be compared to Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Historicity of Sodom and Gomorrah
For readers interested in objective history there might be the question as to whether or these two cities existed and were destroyed in the way described in the Genesis account.
Indeed, this question has interested scholars and archaeologists, and various theories have been proposed attempting to account for their destruction. Some of these include the likes of earthquakes or the plume of a meteor. One theory is that the cities were wrecked by an earthquake between 2100 and 1900 BCE, which could have unleashed showers of steaming tar (3). Pressure from two large plates of Earth could have forced magma or bitumen into the air which may have been ignited by lightning or some other natural source that led to flaming debris fell back to earth (4).
Others have posited the destruction being caused by the plume of a meteor that crashed in the Alps, which is thought to be supported by a cuneiform tablet called the Planisphere. This tablet 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 (5). On this theory, ground heating caused by the meteor’s airburst would have been enough to ignite any flammable material.
Archaeological excavation has found several locations close to the Dead Sea, such as Bab edh-Dhra, Numeira, al-Safi, Feifa, and Khanazir, to have evidence of burning and traces of sulphur matching biblical descriptions of destruction (6). Archaeologists R. T. Schaub and W. E. Rast excavated the site of Bab edh-Dhra and concluded that “rubble remains of buildings are seen on the surface, and many door sockets and basalt mortars are strewn about. Of note, too, is the evidence of severe burning on many of the stones” (7).
Regarding their findings at Numeira and Feifa, “The site as a whole is covered with ashy soil, suggesting that it was not utilized after the destruction which appears so evident on the surface. On the north side especially, the soil is spongy ash, and can be picked up in handfuls” (8). Feifa and Numeira are covered with a spongy ash suggesting clear signs of destruction that seem consistent with the destruction of the “Cities of the Plain” mentioned in Genesis 19. Schaub and Rast suggest as much,
“Implications from the survey for two related areas of investigation may also be noted. In the first place, the sites may bear on the biblical tradition of the “cities of the plain” (Gen. 14, 18, 19), long believed to be located in this area and sometimes thought to have been submerged beneath the shallow water of the southern basin of the Dead Sea” (9).
This has led some to suggest that the biblical tradition contains a distant recollection of an actual catastrophe (10) and that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were located in the southern Ghor, although it is speculative to say which site is actually Sodom or Gomorrah (11). A further possible candidate for the original city of Sodom could be at the Tall el Hammam dig site, also close to the Dead Sea. It seems to match biblical descriptions of the lands of Sodom. According to excavations, evidence of glazed artifacts such as pottery and rocks as well as destruction have been found (12).
1. Fields, Weston. 1992. “The Motif ‘Night as Danger’ Associated with Three Biblical Destruction Narratives.” In Sha’arei Talrnon: Studies in the Bible, Qumran, and the Ancient Near East Presented to Shemaryahu Talmon, edited by Michael Fishbane and Emanuel Tov. Winona Lake: Eisen brauns. p. 28.
2. Joan Toensing, Holly. 2005. “Women of Sodom and Gomorrah: Collateral Damage in the War against Homosexuality?” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21(2):61-74. p. 62.
3. Isbouts, Jean-Pierre. 2007. The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas. National Geographic. p. 71.
4. Neev, David., and Emery, K. O. 1995. The Destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jericho: Geological, Climatological, and Archaeological Background. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 13-14.
5. Atkinson, Nancy. 2008. Evidence of Asteroid Impact For Sodom and Gomorrah? Available.
6. Reznick, Leibel. 2008. Biblical Archaeology: Sodom and Gomorrah. Available; van Hattem, Willem C. 1981. “Once Again: Sodom and Gomorrah.” The Biblical Archaeologist 44(2):87-92. p. 88-89.
7. 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. p. 8.
8. Rast, W. E., and Schaub, R. T. 1974. Ibid. p. 9.
9. Rast, W. E., and Schaub, R. T. 1974. Ibid. p. 19.
10. von Rad, Gerhard. 1961. Genesis: a commentary. London: Westminster Press. p. 215
11. van Hattem, Willem C. 1981. Ibid, p. 90
12. Collins, Steven., and Scott, Latayne. 2013. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. New York: Simon and Schuster; Collins, S., Hamdan, K., and Byers, G. 2009. “Tall al-Hammam: Preliminary Report on Four Seasons of Excavation (2006-2009).” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 53:385-414.