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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Genesis 19:24-29

Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven, and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But his wife, from behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
Now Abraham arose early in the morning and went to the place where he had stood before the LORD; and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the valley, and he saw, and behold, the smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace. Thus it came about, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot lived.

The account of the destruction of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19 is one of the better known from the book of Genesis. Yet, as is true of virtually everything with the Book of Genesis, whether Sodom and Gomorrah were actually destroyed has been the subject of a great deal of dispute. In fact, there is questions as to whether these cities ever existed.

Dr. Steven Collins doesn't have any doubt. He claims to have located the city of Sodom in the plain surrounding the Jordan River north of the Dead Sea. According to "Digging up dirt on the Bible", he believes that the ancient city of Sodom is the ruins of an ancient city at a place known today as Tell el-Hammam, east of the Jordan River and north of the Dead Sea. According to the article,

The professor said he began reacquainting himself with the story of the doomed cities by conducting a year-long intensive research of the Biblical text.

"I chewed it (text) down to the last molecule," Collins said.

What he predicted from his textual research was solidified when he traveled to Jordan and began excavating. The Near Eastern ceramics expert confirmed the presence of Early Bronze Age and Middle Bronze Age pottery by reading pottery sherds, or pieces.

"We read thousands and thousands of sherds," Collins said.

The excavation also uncovered mortars, pestles, grinders and fragments of alabaster vessels. But the most amazing discovery so far has been a large, unique piece of pottery that looks to have been "flash heated" on the outside. Collins described the piece as “looking like glass.” This discovery alone could support the portion of the story where God rained fire and brimstone to destroy Sodom.

"It is intriguing," Collins said, "but continued excavation is needed."

Now, this is a very intriguing bit of information. I have previously read Dr. Collins' booklet entitled "The Search for Sodom and Gomorrah" which ends with him concluding that Tell el-Hamman is probably Sodom and him stating that he desires to go do some archaeological work there. But needless to say, his theories aren't necessarily being accepted by all scholars who traditionally have looked for Sodom south of the Dead Sea, not north where Tell el-Hamman is located. Traditional scholarship has contended that Sodom, if it exists at all, is located under the shallow waters of the Southern tip of the Dead Sea or can be identified with Bab edh-Dhra which is located in that area.

In the Summer of 1999, the Associates for Biblical Research published an article on the locations of Sodom and Gomorrah in Bible and Spade in which ten reasons are given why Sodom and Gomorrah should be located south of the Dead Sea rather than north. These reasons have just been reprinted in the ABR newsletter, and are:

1. Zoar, one of the five Cites of the Plain which included Sodom and Gomorrah, is located at Tell es-Safi, south of the Dead Sea.
2. Between dawn (Gen 19:15) and noon (Gen 19:23), Lot traveled from Sodom to Zoar. The distance from Bab edh-Dhra, the southern candidate for Sodom, to Safi is ca. 16 mi. The distance to Safi from a location north of the Dead Sea is on the order of 50 mi. through difficult terrain, much too far and difficult to negotiate in a few hours.
3. Four Mesopotamian kings fought five kings of the Cities of the Plain in the Valley of Siddim, "which is the Salt Sea" (Gen 14:3), clearly the southern basin of the Dead Sea.
4. The Valley of Siddim is full of bitumen pits (Gen 14:10). The southern Dead Sea area is famous for its Bitumen deposits, whereas there are no bitumen deposits north of the Dead Sea.
5. Gophrit, a sulfurous oil, fell upon the Cities of the Plain (Gen 19:24). Both oil and sulfur deposits are known south of the Dead Sea, but not north.
6. The modern Arabic name Numeira, ca. 10 mi. south of Bab edh-Dhra, preserves the name Gomorrah.
7. Charnel (burial) houses at Bab edh-Dhra burned from the roof down (Gen 19:24).
8. Evidence of earthquake (Gen 19:25) has been found at both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira.
9. Evidence for two destructions (Gen 14:11; 19:24) has been found at both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira.
10. Evidence for irrigation (Gen 13:10) has been found at both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira.

Now, I don't necessarily find all ten of these evidences to be particularly compelling in light of the case made by Dr. Collins for a location north of the Dead Sea. For example, working in reverse order, the fact that irrigation has been found at Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira (reason 10) seems to be a non-factor. Evidence of two destructions (reason 9) and the evidence that there were earthquakes taken together gives some evidence that Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira are potential candidates. Now the burning of the burial houses at Bab edh-Dhra is pretty good evidence that coincides with fire raining down from above, but I'm not sure that the name "Gomorrah" being preserved in Aramaic for Numeira is necessarily the best evidence because that name could have come into existence at any time.

Now, the fact that there is evidence of sulphur and oil deposits to the south but not to the north of the Dead Sea (reason 5) is not particularly convincing to me based on that description because it doesn't describe these deposits, where they are found or in what condition they are found. If more details were provided this may be a strong reason for doubting Dr. Collins' thesis, but as written it is simply to vague to provide any useful information for evaluating the thesis.

Reasons 3 and 4 both deal with the account in Genesis 14 of the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah engaging in battle with other armies in the Valley of Siddim. My only problem with these supports is that the Genesis 14 doesn't say that the Valley of Siddim is necessarily near Sodom or Gomorrah. It certainly doesn't require a logical leap to believe it may be close to the cities, but there is nothing in the text that requires anyone to conclude that the Valley of Siddim must be close. Thus, it seems to me that reasons 3 and 4 are reasons to believe that they have accurately located the Valley of Siddim, but are not reasons to believe that Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira are Sodom and Gomorrah, respectively.

Reasons 1 and 2 are the most intriguing to me because Dr. Collins addresses them directly in his work. He says (1) the identification of Tell es-Safi as Zoar is questionable, and (2) the Bible doesn't say that Zoar is one of the cities of the plain. Here is what Dr. Collins points out (with the word "Kikkar" being the Hebrew word used in the Bible to describe the "plain" on which Sodom and Gomorrah were located):

The Hebrew word zo'ar means "small." Thus, Zoar was probably a rather nondescript place, no doubt a caravan center on one of the routes to and from Egypt. Althouth Zoar (it was also known as Bela) is often listed as one of the five Cities of the Plain, the biblical record at no point tells us that there were five such cities. In fact, there are only four cities stated or implied: Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim. These are the only four cities destroyed along with that portion of the Kikkar with which they are associated. As I stated previously, after their destruction these four cities are never mentioned again in the Bible as living cities or even as geographical markers. But unlike Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, Zoar is found beyond the book of Genesis at least as as geographical marker(Deu 34:3; Isa 15:5; Jer 48:34). Clearly Zoar was on the route to Egypt from Sodom, and it was where Lot fled to escape the destruction of Sodom and the Kikkar. The location of Zoar remains unknown, and current identifications are highly speculative. The point is this: the location of Zoar cannot be used to determine the location of the Kikkar or the cities associated with it.

If it can be shown that Tell es-Safi is definitely Zoar, and that it was necessarily one of the cities of the plain, it seems to me that this would do great damage to Dr. Collins' claims because it is certainly true that Zoar had to be close enough for Lot to flee to in a single night. Thus, if Tell es-Safi is Zoar and Tell es-Safi is located south of the Dead Sea, it certainly makes it difficult to maintain that Sodom and the Kikkar were north of the Dead Sea.

I will be interested to see how this develops since ABR plans on republishing full text of the article from Bible and Spade on its website The in a new feature called Scholars' Corner, coming soon. I will try to update this dispute as more details become available.

4 comments:

Just for the record, your 3rd paragraph begins with "Daniel Collins" when actually it's Steven Collins. (It's OK with me if you just fix the typo & delete this message from me. Thanks for all of your excellent posts, especially today's of the early quotes pertaining to Jesus' divinity!)

Thanks g.m. For some reason, spellcheck didn't pick that up. Can't imagine why not . . . .

Steven Collins said...

As usual, most blogger comments about our work at Tall el-Hammam are inane and uninformed. Why is it that so many bloggers insist on dealing with nits and picks they’ve gotten off the Internet instead of really dealing with facts? The Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project is one of the most significant archaeological works in the Near East at the present time (and one of the largest), and will help us define several cultural periods in the southern Jordan Valley. The theory (now well substantiated by archaeological evidence) that the site’s EB/MB city may be Sodom is only one interesting feature of the excavation. That most bloggers insist on remaining totally ignorant of the facts in this case should cause any thinking person to question their motives. Many of our diggers have been interviewed regarding their experiences on the dig, but their personal opinions are not necessarily mine or those of the dig staff. But they have a right to think about the issues. My question is Why do so many people fail to seek out the facts from “the horses mouth” (data from TeHEP itself), thus making themselves look an awful lot like the other end of the animal? Below is a mini-report on a tiny facet of a hugely successful dig season.
To Interested Thinkers:
I’ve just returned from seven weeks in the southern Jordan Valley directing the Tall el-Hammam (Sodom) Excavation Project. I think it would be an understatement to say that TeHEP Season Two was a success.
With well over 100 participants, plus local workers, representing at least four continents and including countries like the USA, Jordan, Canada, England, Australia, Russia and Ukraine, TeHEP ‘06/’07 was one of the largest digs in Jordan in recent history (at least that’s what we were told by our Jordanian colleagues). I deeply appreciated the support and encouragement of the Jordan Department of Antiquities, four of whom served on my dig staff.
When you add in the local workers we hired for just over three weeks of the season, we looked quite like a busy bunch of ants scurrying over the top of massive Tall el-Hammam, which spreads over a square kilometer at the eastern edge of the Jordan Disk.
Of course, for quite a while now I have put forth the idea that Tall el-Hammam is likely the site of biblical Sodom. That it is in the right place, according to the biblical geography, is impossible to question on the basis of even a cursory textual analysis of Gen 13:1-12. But what about the factors of “right time” and “right stuff” necessary to reasonably nail down such an identification? Well, after TeHEP Season One about a year ago, we stated that the archaeology of the site was leaning quite suggestively in the direction of a pretty straightforward biblical chronology for Sodom.
That chronology goes something like this: founded (at least) during the Early Bronze Age (Gen 10); occupied into the Middle Bronze Age, and destroyed during the MBA (Gen 13-19); not re-occupied for at least several centuries [Moses calls the same area “the valley…where Pisgah overlooks the wasteland” (Num 21:20) during the Late Bronze Age]; perhaps re-occupied much later (after the area recovered from the ecological disaster that had put an end to the Bronze Age civilization of the eastern Jordan Disk during the MBA).
Now, after the completion of TeHEP Season Two, this occupational profile has been established quite firmly.
While Iron Age II is well-represented by at least four, and possibly five, strata, the Late Bronze Age continues to be systematically absent. Still largely theoretical at the end of last season (but many pottery sherds), the presence of a fortified MBA city is now dramatically confirmed in multiple ways, not the least of which is the discovery of a massive MB rampart/fortification system that dwarfs the 3m-thick IA city wall built over it for much of its extent.
Last season we had only gotten a look at the top of this structure, and I speculated then that it looked remarkably like typical MB mudbrick/earthen rampart construction. Then it was just an educated hunch. Now it’s an archaeological fact. We were able to uncover it to a height of about six meters, which effectively exposed eight to nine meters of its sloping outer face. I estimate that to be perhaps half it’s actual height (the rest awaits us next season). But what is showing is pretty impressive, especially when you take a moment to extrapolate how it rings the footprint of the entire upper tall (about 400m east-to-west). The inner/internal construction seems to be a stepped structure of tightly laid mudbrick, faced on the outer slope by a meter or more of compacted earth/clay.
The footprint of the Iron Age city is smaller than that of the MB city. At a cool square kilometer, the EB city’s footprint is the largest at the site. This demonstrates how erroneous information about Tall el-Hammam is in almost every source available. That’s understandable, since we’re the first ones to excavate it, while everybody else was simply guessing. (K. Prag did some probing only on the lower tall about ten years ago while excavating at Tell Iktanu to the south.)
Factually, Tall el-Hammam was THE dominant city in the southern Jordan Valley during the Bronze Age (but unoccupied during the LBA and probably most or all of Iron I) and Iron Age II A, B and C. Isn’t it interesting that Sodom is the only major Bronze Age urban center mentioned in the Bible located on the eastern Jordan Disk, and that Tall el-Hammam is, in fact, the only major Bronze Age urban center on the eastern Jordan Disk? (There are at least five others within eight kilometers, but all a fraction of the size of TeH.) We must face the facts. There is no coincidence here.
From the macro (the massive MB rampart) in Field D to the micro (the classic MB piriform juglet) in Field B, we now know that Tall el-Hammam was a thriving center of civilization during the Middle Bronze Age when it seems to have met a fiery end. This event is attested by a meter of ash and destruction debris in Field B where the MB juglet, along with MB storage jars, were unearthed just a few weeks ago. The site then lay abandoned during the LBA, and probably most or all of Iron Age I, until a flurry of building activities in several phases turned the site into a significant city during IA II A, B and C.
At this point, I am willing to say that if Tall el-Hammam’s identification as biblical Sodom is still denied after an examination of the growing body of evidence to that effect, then the identificaton of every single biblical site not confirmed by specific epigraphic evidence must me called into question.
That’s it on a thumbnail. So now we have about 700 diagnostic sherds and many whole vessels to “read,” and lots of organic analysis and C14 dating to do over the next several months as we assemble our first Preliminary Report later this year.
I’m also scheduled to present papers on the subject at several conferences this year, including ASOR and NEAS in the fall. And with Tall el-Hammam continuing to cover all the criterial bases relative to Sodom, I’ll continue to argue in that vein until the doubters get hold of their senses.
By the way, I got a chance to present my case “live and on site” to quite a few visiting archaeological dignitaries during the season. In those instances, Tall el-Hammam itself did most of the “talking,” almost defying anyone to deny her preeminence as the dominant Bronze Age city in the region (as Sodom was the dominant Bronze Age city on the eastern Jordan Disk in Genesis). After an on-site tour of Tall el-Hammam, with Gen 13:1-12 firmly in mind, the general response, minimally, was always something like, “Well, it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it.” To which I usually responded, “Welcome to Sodom!”
Steven Collins, Director, The Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project, Jordan; Dean of the College of Archaeology, Trinity Southwest University, Albuquerque, New Mexico USA

Interesting, I have been analyzing the same verse and I couldn't understand the same part. I think you should discuss the point with all your readers.

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