Published: 10 January 2022

Objections To Tall el-Hammam

Objections To Tall el-Hammam
Tall el-Hammam (Sodom)

Many experts do not accept that Tall el-Hammam is Sodom. As I noted in the first article in this series, the prevailing theory for the past century has placed Sodom at the southern end of the Dead Sea. Perhaps even beneath the surface of the Dead Sea. 

It’s hard to go against a century of tradition, and the common belief in a southern location has resulted in several objections to a northern location. To wrap up this series on Tall el-Hammam, let’s look at the common objections raised against a northern location for Sodom.

Objection: Zoar too distant to travel to before sunrise

Lot and his daughters fled to Zoar to escape the imminent destruction of the cities of the plain. Where was Zoar? Conventional wisdom assumes Zoar is somewhere south of the Dead Sea. This is mainly based on the Madaba Map which is a 6th century AD floor mosaic in a Byzantine church in Jordan. The mosaic shows various locations around the Holy Land including Zoar. The Madaba Map places Zoar at the southern end of the Dead Sea.

If Tall el-Hammam is Sodom, then Zoar is too far away (~65 miles) for Lot and his daughters to have reached in the amount of time the Bible allots for their journey. This would have been a trip of about three days. Genesis 19:15-17 indicates that it did not take Lot and his daughters that long to arrive at Zoar. 

Is the Madaba Map trustworthy?

If we can trust the Madaba Map for the location of Zoar, this would be a real problem for the identification of Tall el-Hammam as Sodom. However, there are known inaccuracies on the map for ancient cities and geographical features. Ferrell Jenkins points out that the town of Ephraim (Jn 11:54) is incorrectly located on the Madaba Map.[1]https://ferrelljenkins.blog/2013/06/02/more-about-ephraim. Likewise, Victor Gold points out mistakes on the map regarding Mounts Ebal and Gerizim.[2]Gold, Victor Roland. “Mosaic Map of Madeba.” The Biblical Archaeologist 21, no. 3 (September 1958): 50–70. In addition, Herbert Donner has identified a number of inaccuracies on the Madaba Map in its depiction of Egyptian sites.[3]Donner, Herbert. The Mosaic Map of Madaba: An Introductory Guide. Kok Pharos, 1992. 80.

These problems with the Madaba Map are not to say it doesn’t offer anything of value. However, these errors show that we can’t put too much confidence in the map. It simply isn’t accurate enough to draw conclusions from without other corroborating sources.

Unknown artists made this map 2,300 years after the destruction of Sodom. Zoar was a very small town; the Hebrew word Zoar means “small.” It is highly unlikely that the creators of this map could have positively identified the location of a tiny town which left no historical traces.

We can only guess at Zoar’s location

“All scholars agree that Zoar was south of Sodom and the Cities of the Plain, as one traveled in the direction of Egypt. It was probably located on the north/south trade route running along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. But where along that route?”[4]Collins, Steven. “Rethinking the Location of Zoar: An Exercise in Biblical Geography.” Biblical Research Bulletin 6 (2006): 3. Dr. Steven Collins argues for a location somewhere along the Arnon Gorge. Even with his analysis of the location of Zoar, he offers no precise location along the Arnon.

The bottom line is, we simply don’t know the location of ancient Zoar. We can make some guesses, but at present we don’t have enough information to locate Zoar. Because we don’t know, no one can legitimately deny that Tall el-Hammam is Sodom by comparing its location to that of Zoar. In fact, we should reverse our thinking. Given the near certainty that Tall el-Hammam is Sodom, we should be searching for Zoar using Tall el-Hammam as a starting point and not the other way around.

Objection: Sodom was in the Valley of Siddim

Many people assume that Sodom was in the Valley of Siddim since Sodom’s inhabitants fought a battle in this location. The Bible nowhere states that Sodom and the other cities of the plain were in the Valley of Siddim. It just states that this battle took place in the Valley of Siddim. 

The Valley of Siddim is most likely the southern basin of the Dead Sea. We know that the Valley of Siddim was under water by the time Moses wrote Genesis because he clearly states that the Valley of Siddim is the Salt Sea (Dead Sea) (Gen 14:3). Geologists have determined that the water level of the Dead Sea has varied dramatically over time.

The invading foreign armies had marched from north to south, conquering and destroying as they went. When they reached El-paran, they turned back and started moving north (Gen 14:6-7). When they turned north the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Zoar met them for battle in the Valley of Siddim (Gen 14:8).

Why was the battle fought in the Valley of Siddim if Sodom’s location was at the far (north) end of the Dead Sea? They knew it was better to intercept their enemy and battle him at a distance rather than fight him on their doorstep. If the cities of the plain could defeat the invading kings 50 miles away, they could prevent any harm from coming to their home turf. 

A careful analysis of the text reveals that the Bible does not say Sodom was in the Valley of Siddim. We can infer that the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar hoped to avoid catastrophe by facing their enemies far from home. However, their plan to defeat the invaders in the Valley of Siddim failed.

Objection: Ezekiel said that Sodom was south of Jerusalem 

Some claim that a verse in Ezekiel proves that Sodom was south of Jerusalem:

And 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. (Ezek. 16:46 ESV)

Taken out of context, this verse does appear to be teaching a geography lesson. When read in context we get a very different message. God is speaking to the rulers and inhabitants of Jerusalem through the prophet (Ezek. 16:1-3). He likens Jerusalem to an abandoned baby girl whom He protected and nourished into adulthood. Having figuratively married the girl when she became a woman, she rejected her Husband and became unfaithful. God uses very strong language to describe the woman of ill repute she had become.

Read Ezekiel in context!

If one reads the entire chapter, it is abundantly clear that God is not speaking about the geographic locations of these two places in relation to Jerusalem. God is anthropomorphizing Jerusalem, Samaria, and Sodom. He is comparing Jerusalem (the unfaithful wife) to her “sisters” Samaria and Sodom. He is  saying that Jerusalem had become like Samaria and Sodom. The next verse makes this clear:

Not only did you walk in their ways and do according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. (Ezek. 16:47 ESV)

If this is so, what is up with the cardinal directions north and south? Older Bibles translate the verse this way:

And thine elder sister is Samaria, she and her daughters that dwell at thy left hand: and thy younger sister, that dwelleth at thy right hand, is Sodom and her daughters. (Ezek. 16:46 KJV)

Left/right or north/south?

Why such a difference in translation? This is because ancient Hebrew did not have dedicated words for the four cardinal directions. How does one get north and south from the Hebrew words left (שׂמאל) and right (יָמִין)?

One of the ways a biblical author could indicate direction in Hebrew was influenced by one’s orientation toward the sun. If a person is facing the rising sun, then north is to the left and south is to the right. In fact, people of the ancient Near East oriented themselves by facing east. Today, we orient ourselves to the north. This is why we align all of our maps to the north. This was not the case for the ancient Near Eastern peoples; they oriented themselves to the east and, not surprisingly, the Bible is also written with this eastward orientation in mind.[5]https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/philosophy/east-time-eternity-the-universe-and-the-origin-of-all-things.htm.[6]https://www.etzion.org.il/en/tanakh/studies-tanakh/core-studies-tanakh/vayikra-tzafon. Therefore, to say that a place was on your left could be indicating that it was north of you. The context of the passage dictates if something was to the left, or if the author meant “north.”

Valid translation?

Is north and south a valid translation of these Hebrew words for left (שׂמאל)[7]1. to go to the left.2. to use the left hand, north, northwards, lying on the left: the left, situated on the left side. Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and M. E. J. Richardson, eds. The … Continue reading and right (יָמִין)[8]1. right hand2. of situation on, or direction toward, the right3. of other parts of the body, besides hand: right thigh, the right (upper) leg of sacrificial animal4. south, because when facing east … Continue reading in Ezekiel 16:46? I think not. Given the context, what God is trying to get across is that Jerusalem had become birds of a feather with Samaria and Sodom. The point is similar to the song lyrics: 

“Clowns to the left of me!
Jokers to the right!
Here I am stuck in the middle with you.”

Ezekiel’s real message

Ezekiel’s message has nothing to do with the geographical location of Sodom and Samaria. This is abundantly clear if one reads the entire chapter. God was saying that Jerusalem was in the middle of the worst kind of companions. It is communicating that Jerusalem’s inhabitants had adopted the abominable practices of it’s wicked neighbors. “…you walk in their ways and do according to their abominations” (Ezek. 16:47).

It is also worth mentioning that it is mainly (if not exclusively) modern Bible versions which translate this verse using the words north and south. I suspect this is due to the fact that it wasn’t until the 20th century that opinions shifted from a northern location for Sodom to a southern location. There is no reason to use north and south (as opposed to left and right) in translating this verse unless the translators believed that Sodom was south of Jerusalem at the southern end of the Dead Sea. Even then, the context of the passage should have made it clear to the translators that it was association, not geography, that God was communicating. 

Conclusion

The issues typically raised in objection to Tall el-Hammam being Sodom are not very difficult to refute. We do not know the location of Zoar. Therefore, we can’t use its presumed location to refute Tall el-Hammam’s identification as Sodom. The Valley of Siddim is most likely the southern basin of the Dead Sea, However, the Bible does not locate Sodom in this valley. We can’t refute Tall el-Hammam as the site of Sodom based on this unwarranted assumption. Finally, Ezekiel 16:46 is not speaking about geography. It is not communicating Sodom’s location in relation to Jerusalem. The context demands a wicked association, not a location. 

In short, none of the objections noted above successfully refutes the identification of Tall el-Hammam as Sodom.

References

References
1 https://ferrelljenkins.blog/2013/06/02/more-about-ephraim.
2 Gold, Victor Roland. “Mosaic Map of Madeba.” The Biblical Archaeologist 21, no. 3 (September 1958): 50–70.
3 Donner, Herbert. The Mosaic Map of Madaba: An Introductory Guide. Kok Pharos, 1992. 80.
4 Collins, Steven. “Rethinking the Location of Zoar: An Exercise in Biblical Geography.” Biblical Research Bulletin 6 (2006): 3.
5 https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/philosophy/east-time-eternity-the-universe-and-the-origin-of-all-things.htm.
6 https://www.etzion.org.il/en/tanakh/studies-tanakh/core-studies-tanakh/vayikra-tzafon.
7 1. to go to the left.
2. to use the left hand, north, northwards, lying on the left: the left, situated on the left side.

Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and M. E. J. Richardson, eds. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Accordance electronic ed., version 3.6. Leiden: Brill, 2000.

8 1. right hand
2. of situation on, or direction toward, the right
3. of other parts of the body, besides hand: right thigh, the right (upper) leg of sacrificial animal
4. south, because when facing east the right hand is toward the south

Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Accordance electronic ed., version 4.5. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.