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.