Sodom’s Destruction Discovered? The Archeological Evidence, and Chronological Quandry.

by David Gadbois

Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur 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 Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. And Abraham went early in the morning 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 looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace.

Genesis 19:24-28

Genesis describes an astounding, apocalyptic destruction of a region near the Dead Sea, where Abraham’s nephew Lot resided. What phenomenon could have been responsible for the sort of destruction described here? And is there good external evidence for it occurring? Especially the sort of evidence that would allow us to date the event.

In September of 2021, the archeological team responsible for excavating the ancient site of Tall el-Hammam (in present-day Jordan, East of the Jordan River and NE of the Dead Sea) published their findings in a mainstream, peer-reviewed journal, arguing that a meteor impact was responsible for the destruction observed at the site, around the 17th Century B.C. This would have been a particular sort of impact, where the meteor explodes in earth’s atmosphere before reaching the ground intact (sometimes called a bolide or an airburst meteor). While these types don’t leave behind craters, the amount of energy released in terms of heat and pressure are comparable to megaton-class nuclear bomb detonations.

While these events are rare, we do know of a similar impact known as the Tunguska impact in 1908 in Siberia. This flattened millions of trees over an area of hundreds of square miles. A much smaller meteor airburst was caught by many video cameras over a region further west in Russia in 2013.

The excavation of the site began in 2005, and these findings of the destruction layer are not exactly brand new. See this 2018 paper by Phillip Silvia, a principle member of the excavation team, along with this Times of Israel news article from the same year. But it is significant that this more comprehensive article has now been published in Scientific Reports (part of the Nature Portfolio, that also publishes Nature). The article is quite long and, at points, very technical, but one can simply read the abstract if the content is too overwhelming. In addition, one can consult this Christianity Today article (Sept. 2021) for a compact overview, this brief blog announcement from Dr. David Graves, or view this well-produced video from apologist/blogger Michael Jones of Inspiring Philosophy.

The excavators paint a vivid picture in their conclusion:

We conclude that the only plausible formation mechanism that can account for the entire range of evidence in Table 3 is a crater-forming impact or a cosmic airburst, most likely somewhat larger than the 22-megaton airburst at Tunguska, Siberia in 1908. The data also suggest an airburst occurred a few kilometers SW of Tall el-Hammam causing, in rapid succession, a high- temperature thermal pulse from the fireball that melted exposed materials, including roofing clay, mudbricks, and pottery. This was followed by a high-temperature, hypervelocity blast wave that demolished and pulverized mudbrick walls across the city, leveling the city, and causing extensive human mortality. An important observation is that although local sediment can melt at ~ 1300 °C, that is a minimum temperature but not a maximum one, a conclusion that is supported by the presence of embedded minerals that melted at temperatures of up to ~ 2500 °C. In addition, anomalously high salt content in the debris matrix is consistent with an aerial detonation above high-salinity sediments near the Jordan River or above the hypersaline Dead Sea. This event, in turn, distributed salt across the region, severely limiting regional agricultural development for up to ~ 600 years.

Should Christians consider this to be a good and, perhaps, even strong archeological and scientific confirmation of the Genesis account of Abraham, Lot, and the destruction of the Cities of the Plain? My answer is: if the technical merits regarding the nature of the destruction at Tall el-Hammam withstand scrutiny, YES! It would be very difficult indeed, to believe that such a rare and spectacular bolide destruction would happen to wipe out a region of cities near the Dead Sea, of precisely the destructive nature and description we find in the Genesis account, if it were unrelated to the biblical Sodom & Gomorrah.

This thesis, however, does not come without some controversy, even amongst theologically-conservative Christian scholars. The more-traditional of these scholars locate Abraham’s life primarily in the late third millennium B.C., not during the Middle Bronze Age of the second millennium B.C. as the work of the Tall el-Hammam excavators would suggest. For instance, Andrew Steinmann writes “…the events of Abraham’s life took place from 2166 to 1991 BC” (From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology, 2011, p.71). That’s still centuries before the earliest feasible date of ~1750 B.C. that was found for Tall el-Hammam’s destruction according to carbon-14, pottery, and artifact dating.

But other scholars, such as Kenneth Kitchen, place Abraham later than the traditional date: “The first and by far the biggest section…can offer almost a score of very varied lines of evidence that tie Abraham/Isaac/Jacob/Joseph to the overall period circa 1900-1600 (2000-1500 at the outermost limits)” (On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 2003, p.358).

That would seem to dovetail nicely with the Tall el-Hammam destruction. This issue however, is wrapped up with a variety of other hairy, complex chronological and interpretive issues: the Long vs. Short Sojourn in Egypt, the possible use of stylistic/honorific numbers in lifespans in the Pentateuch, gaps in the genealogies, textual variants between the Masoretic, LXX, and Samaritan manuscripts, and to some extent the always-controversial debate concerning the dating of Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt. It is impossible to go in to all of that, and disentangle such a web in this short blog article.

I’ll mention only briefly that the location of Sodom is disputed. Tall el-Hammam is on the north-east end of the Dead Sea and thus fits northern geographical theories. Other scholars, such as Bryant Wood, have argued for a location on the southern side of the Dead Sea. I haven’t studied the matter in detail, but I haven’t yet seen a slam-dunk argument on either side. It may be that the biblical data is ambiguous (to us distant, modern readers, anyway) or simply under-determines the issue.

It can certainly be apologetically-hazardous to hang one’s hat on a single archeological finding. We don’t have dash cam footage of the Tall el-Hammam meteor, nor did anyone find a sign in the ruins saying “welcome to Sodom!” But I think we should consider the evidence that we do have to be, at minimum, promising. It is the only reasonable candidate we know of, at this time, for the sort of heavenly destruction we find in the Genesis account. As such, it is a worthy plank in an inductive case for the veracity of the Old Testament.

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