Published: 20 December 2021

Searching For Sodom

Sodom
Tall el-Hammam (Sodom)

The destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the best known events of the Bible. The story’s lessons are significant and relevant to modern life. Be that as it may, before we tackle those lessons (in a future article), let’s consider recent archaeological discoveries which shed light on the ancient cities.

Where was Sodom?

Until the 20th century most biblical scholars considered Sodom to be at the northern end of the Dead Sea. Of course, they did not know the exact location, but they based their conclusions upon a reading of the text in Genesis. 

“In the 19th century, however, most explorer-scholars—including Charles W. Wilson, H.H. Kitchener, Claude R. Conder, Selah Merrill, Henry B. Tristram, William M. Thomson, George Grove and Henry S. Osborn—located the cities of the kikkar (the “cities of the plain”) north of the Dead Sea. Archaeology, then still in its infancy, was of no help to them, but their analyses of the Hebrew text and understanding of the local geography and geology led them in the right direction.”[1]Collins, Steven. “Where Is Sodom?” Biblical Archaeology Review 39, no. 2 (2013): 33–38, 40–41, 70. https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/39/2/2.

This changed in the early 20th century when Dr. William Foxwell Albright assumed the location was somewhere south of the Dead Sea.

“This southern location derives its support almost exclusively from the writings of the influential early-twentieth-century scholars W. F. Albright and G. E. Wright, who advanced the idea that the two large cities and smaller Zoar (also mentioned in the biblical account of the destruction) were located somewhere toward the southern end of the Dead Sea, possibly along the eastern shore or even underwater.”[2]Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 1568). Howard … Continue reading

There was a tradition, going back to Byzantine times, which affirmed the location of Sodom to be south of the Dead Sea. Albright evidently accepted the tradition as having merit and subsequently focused his search for Sodom in this region. After investigating the area, Albright found no evidence of human occupation during the middle bronze age (the time period of Abraham and the destruction of Sodom).[3]Hattem, Willem C van. “Once Again: Sodom and Gomorrah.” The Biblical Archaeologist 44, no. 2 (1981): 87.

Albright acknowledged that there were no viable candidates for Sodom at the southern end of the Dead Sea. The site’s former inhabitants had abandoned the southern sites hundreds of years before the time of Abraham.[4]Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 1650). Howard … Continue reading Finding no relevant archaeological remains, Albright concluded that the “cities of the plain” (Gen 13:12, 19:29) rested below the surface of the Dead Sea![5]Howard, David M Jr. “Sodom and Gomorrah Revisited.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27, no. 4 (December 1984): 395.

He theorized that the water level of the Dead Sea was much lower in the past and over time its rising waters covered the location of the ruins. Biblical archaeology was in its infancy in Albright’s day and much has been learned since then which completely undermines this idea. 

For example, geological research has revealed that the Dead Sea’s present water level is similar to the levels of Abraham’s time.[6]Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 85). Howard Books. … Continue reading This information was not available to Albright. Nevertheless, it is astounding that he postulated a “submerged cities” hypothesis rather than considering an alternative to the southern location. Albright is considered the father of biblical archaeology and was such a towering figure in the discipline that few ever questioned his assumption. Subsequent generations of archaeologists assumed Albright and local tradition were correct.  

Where does the Bible say Sodom was?

It is amazing that so many brilliant archaeologists of the past and present have not taken the Bible seriously. If they had, someone would have located Sodom long ago. Its location has been a mystery – until recently.

In 2005 a site in Jordan called Tall el-Hammam caught the attention of Dr. Steven Collins. He has been excavating this site since 2005 and has found very compelling evidence that it is the site of the ancient city of Sodom. It was the book of Genesis which compelled Dr. Collins to look for Sodom north of the Dead Sea. What did Dr. Collins read in the Bible which prompted him to ignore a century of archaeological tradition?

10 And Lot lifted his eyes and saw all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere (before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah) like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt as you go toward Zoar. 11 Then Lot chose for himself all the plain of Jordan, and Lot journeyed east. And they separated from each other. 12 Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain and pitched his tent even as far as Sodom. (Gen. 13:10–12 NKJV)

Sodom was East of Bethel and Ai

Abraham and Lot were in the vicinity of Bethel and Ai (Gen 13:3) when Lot made his decision to go east toward the cities of the plain. From this vantage point, one can look all the way across to the east side of the Jordan Valley. Although Tall el-Hammam is 25 miles away, it is possible to see its vicinity (on a clear day) due to the fact that Bethel and Ai tower 4000 feet above the bottom of the Jordan Valley. 

Notice a few significant clues in the verses above. First, Lot went east, eventually going all the way to Sodom. If Sodom were south of the Dead Sea, it would have necessitated him going in a southerly direction for more than sixty miles (as the crow flies). However, Lot didn’t go south, he went east. Tall el-Hammam is east of Bethel and Ai.  

Second, Lot looked out over the plain of the Jordan. The Hebrew word translated “plain” is kikkar. Kikkar refers to something round or oval shaped like a coin or a flat loaf of bread. In fact, the Brown, Driver, and Briggs Hebrew lexicon actually cites the Jordan Valley as an aid to defining the word:

1. the round (or oval) esp. of the Jordan valley[7]BDB, s.v. “כִּכָּר,” 503.

Likewise, HALOT includes the vicinity of the Jordan Valley in its definition: “the wide southern part of Ghor.”[8]HALOT, s.v. “כִּכָּר,” 2:473. ““Ghor” is the Arabic term for that portion of the Great Rift Valley between and including the Sea of Galilee/Tiberias in the north and the Dead Sea in the south.”[9]Silvia, Phillip, Ted Bunch, Steven Collins, Malcolm Lecompte, and Allen West. “The 3.7kaBP Middle Ghor Event: Catastrophic Termination of a Bronze Age Civilization,” 2018, 1.

The Jordan Valley widens into a large plain where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. This plain is oval in shape and resembles a disk. From the mountains on either side of the Jordan Valley, this lush, green disk would have been obvious.  

Third, the kikkar was “well watered everywhere (before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah) like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt” (v. 10). As it is today, this dry area doesn’t remind us of the garden of Eden. However, it wasn’t always as it is now. 

Plain of the Jordan was well watered

Verse 10 gives us two clues about water sources in the plain. Genesis tells us that the garden of Eden was watered by a spring (Gen 2:6). Most English translations say “mist,” but the Hebrew word suggests a stream which bubbles up from the ground. The NIV and NET both make this distinction while other translations provide footnotes indicating springs. This note from the NET Bible translators is helpful:

The Hebrew word אֵד (ʾed) was traditionally translated “mist” because of its use in Job 36:27. However, an Akkadian cognate edu in Babylonian texts refers to subterranean springs or waterways. Such a spring would fit the description in this context, since this water “goes up” and waters the ground.[10]W. Hall Harris, eds. The NET Bible Notes. 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019), paragraph 291.

Likewise, the kikkar of the Jordan also has freshwater springs. 

“There are numerous springs in the Kikkar area flowing down from the surrounding hills and wadis. Then there are the abundant waters of the Jordan itself, plus several perennial streams coming from the east. All this makes the comparison to Eden natural and unmistakable.”[11]Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 1812). Howard … Continue reading 

Dr. Collins has noted that there were both hot and cool springs in the vicinity of ancient Tall el-Hammam which provided water year round.[12]Ibid., Kindle Location 734. Just as there were springs in the garden of the LORD, there were springs in the plain of the Jordan. In addition, the Jordan River itself also supplied water to the valley. Like the Nile river in Egypt, in the middle bronze age the Jordan overflowed its banks once a year. 

“[T]he Jordan, like the Nile, also has an alluvial “delta” through which it empties into the northern end of the Dead Sea. Additionally, in antiquity both rivers underwent an annual inundation due to rainfall and snowmelt far upstream. It seems that the writer of Genesis was familiar with the lower Nile area and viewed the Jordan as a “Nile in miniature.””[13]Ibid., Kindle Location 1821. 

Which way did Abraham look?

One more consideration in favor of Sodom being at the northern end of the Dead Sea is found in Genesis 18. In this passage, God and two angels visited Abraham at the oaks of Mamre which was near Hebron. God revealed to Abraham that He was going to destroy the cities of the plain because of the great wickedness of the inhabitants. As they were leaving, Abraham walked a little way with them.

Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. (Gen. 18:16 ESV)

We don’t know where Abraham and his visitors were when they “looked down toward Sodom,” but it is interesting to note that the kikkar is visible from the hills just east of Hebron. The text is both literal and factual when it says they looked down toward Sodom. The hills east of Hebron are over 3000 feet above sea level. By comparison, the top of Tall el-Hamman is about 475 below sea level. When the Bible says they looked down, it really means they looked down.

Also notice that the text says they looked toward Sodom. The hills east of Hebron are almost forty miles from Tall el-Hammam. This is much too far to see the city no matter how clear the weather was. They couldn’t have seen Sodom, but they could certainly see Sodom’s environs at the northern end of the Dead Sea. 

Compare this with Albright’s submerged cities hypothesis. While Abraham could have looked toward the southern end of the Dead Sea from the hills east of Hebron, the cities (had they been there) would have been below the horizon. 

The right place

In addition to conforming with the Bible’s description of Sodom’s location, Tall el-Hammam also fits Josephus’s description for the location of Sodom.

“Lot possessed the land of the plain, and the river Jordan, not far from the city of Sodom, which was then a fine city; but is now destroyed by the will and wrath of God” (Antiquities of the Jews 1:170).[14]Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. New updated ed, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987, 39.

Josephus places Sodom near the Jordan River. This excludes a location south of the Dead Sea for the simple fact that the Jordan River ends at the northern end of the Dead Sea. There is no Jordan River south of the Dead Sea.

Tall el-Hammam is certainly in the area where the Bible described Sodom to be, but is it Sodom? The plain of the Jordan is large enough for many ancient cities. How can we know Tal el-Hammam is Sodom? As Dr. Collins is fond of saying, It would have to be in the right place, have the right stuff, and be from the right time. So far we see that it has met one of three criteria; it is in the right place. Does it meet the other two? More about that in the next post.

References

References
1 Collins, Steven. “Where Is Sodom?” Biblical Archaeology Review 39, no. 2 (2013): 33–38, 40–41, 70. https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/39/2/2.
2 Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 1568). Howard Books. Kindle Edition.
3 Hattem, Willem C van. “Once Again: Sodom and Gomorrah.” The Biblical Archaeologist 44, no. 2 (1981): 87.
4 Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 1650). Howard Books. Kindle Edition.
5 Howard, David M Jr. “Sodom and Gomorrah Revisited.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27, no. 4 (December 1984): 395.
6 Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 85). Howard Books. Kindle Edition.
7 BDB, s.v. “כִּכָּר,” 503.
8 HALOT, s.v. “כִּכָּר,” 2:473.
9 Silvia, Phillip, Ted Bunch, Steven Collins, Malcolm Lecompte, and Allen West. “The 3.7kaBP Middle Ghor Event: Catastrophic Termination of a Bronze Age Civilization,” 2018, 1.
10 W. Hall Harris, eds. The NET Bible Notes. 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019), paragraph 291.
11 Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 1812). Howard Books. Kindle Edition.
12 Ibid., Kindle Location 734.
13 Ibid., Kindle Location 1821.
14 Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. New updated ed, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987, 39.