The Fiery Theology - and Inconclusive Archaeology - Behind Sodom and Gomorrah

Billions of Abrahamic adherents believe in a divinely perpetrated inferno that has framed society’s attitudes toward same-sex relations for millennia. Yet is there any hard archaeological evidence to substantiate this homo-Hiroshima?

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin (Wikimedia)
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, 1852.Wikimedia Commons

The Sodomites bang on the front door of Abraham’s nephew Lot, demanding to have their way with his two male houseguests. Unsatisfied with Lot’s counteroffer of his own virgin daughters, they storm the lodging. Angels scurry to the rescue, saving Lot and his family as the Sin Cities, along with their degenerate denizens, are divinely reduced to smithereens.

Or at least that’s the Torah’s version of the fate of Sodom, Gomorrah and three adjacent Jordan Valley city-kingdoms allegedly eradicated around 4,000 years ago. Their downfall, one of history’s most epic tales of heavenly judgment for impenitent sin, has fundamentally shaped the way Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions view homosexuality.

Yet putting aside for a moment the theological debate over the morality and indeed historicity of the Vale of Siddim’s sexual proclivities, what have archaeological excavations unveiled? Did the so-called Cities of the Plain exist, and if so, where? Were they destroyed in one cataclysmic go, a once-fertile region turned into a salty wilderness – and if so, how?

Higgledy-piggledy historicity

While no consensus reigns in archaeological and scientific communities as to the existence of the ‘Sin Cities’, a ‘southern theory’ – specifically a cluster of five sites in modern-day Jordan – has gained the most traction.

Based on the five wadis leading into the southeastern Dead Sea, W. F. Albright, the founder of the Biblical Archeology movement, first theorized that these dry riverbeds once flowed with water, providing desirable and therefore likely places for the pentapolis in question to have established itself. Excavations at a Bronze Age site called Bab edh-Dha on the sea’s south-eastern bank, carried out in the 1960s by Paul W. Lapp, appeared to substantiate this theory.

Bab edh-Dha has since been embraced by many as the remains of the condemned city, a conclusion based on the discovery of a massive cemetery, defensive walls and pottery which showed signs of being burnt, as well as telltale deposits of bitumen.

Strengthening the hand of the southern theorists was the discovery of another four sites to the south of Bab edh-Dha during the 1970s. The unearthing of Numeira by Walter E. Rast and R. Thomas Schaub – excitedly labeled by some as the ruins of Gomorrah – was followed by three other ruined Bronze Age localities, Safi (Zoar?), Feifa (Admah?) and Khanazir (Zeboiim?).

Aside from the magic number five, the unearthed sites exhibit similarities in both architecture and artifacts found, implying some sort of shared urban culture. However, detractors argue – among other things – that these sites are too small to match the biblical description of the Cities of the Plain, and, according to archaeological analysis, met their end hundreds of years before the Bible’s internal chronology, which pegs Sodom and Gomorrah’s downfall around the beginning of the twentieth century BCE, just before Isaac’s birth.

A ‘northern theory’ has proved less popular. Ruins at Tulaylat al-Ghassul northeast of the Dead Sea, first discovered in 1929, were initially linked to the Cities of the Plain, but later excavations showed contradictory dates of destruction. Yet another option is being explored, also northeast of the sea, at Tall al-Hammam, a joint dig by the Jordanian government and Trinity Southwest College, an evangelical Christian university in New Mexico.

Further north in Syria, inscriptions on some of the 20,000 cuneiform tablets found in the Ebla digs in 1975 mentions Sodom and Admah explicitly – the first such extra-biblical reference. This argues that at least some of the cities were real, though such extrapolations are contested, including by Ebla scholars themselves.

Natural disaster, not hand of God?

If the city-kingdoms did in fact exist, those unconvinced by a literalist reading of scripture suspect their end was brought about by an indiscriminate natural disaster, not a targeted genocide perpetrated by a puritanical being upstairs. Geologists such as Frederick G. Clapp, then Graham Harris and Anthony Beardow, posit that that the Dead Sea region, perched on top of the tectonic boundary between the Arabian and African Plates as it is, was struck by a massive earthquake that fits the relevant timeframe.

Analysis of rock faces, crushed skeletal remains and scientific simulations lend credence to the possibility that a quake liquefied the ground, igniting underground methane and the region’s abundant bitumen deposits, and possibly caused a catastrophic landslide. Latter-day drilling has found oil and gas in the region's rocks, if not in commercial quantities.

Harris and Beardow concluded that the most likely location of the ruins is under the shallow waters of the southern Dead Sea.

Homophobic Hebrew whispers?

Still other hypotheses and possible locations abound, including the presumptively named Mt. Sodom in Israel with its wondrous salt pillars. But archaeological inquiry has proven inconclusive. No singular site or finding has been roundly embraced as answering the many questions that the case of the Cities of Plains raise, perhaps in no small part to the socio-religious ramifications of any such resolution. Explaining the destruction through natural events would undermine the biblical account’s authenticity, bolstering claims that the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah is a sinister myth born out of Iron Age homophobia.

As Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University and co-author of the best-selling The Bible Unearthed, says: “We are probably dealing here with an etiological story, that is, a legend that developed in order to explain a landmark. In other words, people who lived in the later phase of the Iron Age, the later days of the kingdom of Judah, were familiar with the huge ruins of the Early Bronze cities and told a story of how such important places could be destroyed.”

Why would they ascribe the disaster to fire rather than say, flood or plague? Finkelstein offers that the Hebrew peoples of the time “could have incorporated into the story elements that come from the natural phenomena of the region.”

Smoking guns and sexual genocide

True believers could retort that no, this isn’t just a case of Hebrew whispers transcribed onto cured cow skin; the Torah not a man-made redaction of dubious oral histories; it is absolute truth, dictated by God to Moses. And even if science can explain the cities’ ruination, it was Father Universe, through a servile Mother Earth, who orchestrated this most socio-religiously consequential of cataclysms.

Even so, how do we prove that the slain urbanites were practitioners of ‘sodomy’ – the casus belli for their mass execution?

Perhaps the only way to ever confirm their alleged homosexuality, and by extension, that God really does hate gays, is to unearth, under all those layers of rock and sand homoerotic stone inscriptions or carvings depicting man-on-man action that survived the cities’ apocalyptical end and millennia of decay.

But unlike recovered artifacts affirming the proclivities of the ancient Greeks, no smoking gun has been found in the Dead Sea region – and likely not through the bible-and-spade brigade’s lack of trying.