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Sodom and Gomorrah: Historic Fact or Biblical Allegory?

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According to one of the earliest stories of the Bible, two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah and all their inhabitants were destroyed some 5,000 years ago for not living up to the ethical standards of God. But, did these ancient cities actually exist?

The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar.  Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fir from the Lord out of heaven.  And he overthrew those cities and all the plain and all the inhabitants of the cities and that which grew upon the ground.  But his wife looked back from behind him and she became a pillar of salt. (Gen 19: 23-24)

According to one of the earliest stories of the Bible, two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their inhabitants were destroyed some 5,000 years ago for not living up to the ethical standards of God. 

But, did these ancient cities actually exist? 

And if so, were they actually destroyed by fire and brimstone or is this purely a cautionary, anagogical tale as many stories of the Bible are thought to have been? 

These are the questions believers and scholars alike have asked for centuries.

The only existing written record of Sodom and Gomorrah is in the Old Testaments

Oddly, perhaps, oral and written tradition of neighboring cultures make no reference to these cities, or what must have been the most devastating and cataclysmic event of their lives. 

But does that mean the Biblical telling didn’t occur?

Dr. R. Thomas Schaub, a world-renowned Biblical archaeologist and professor emeritus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who has published many books and articles on this subject, believes that if Sodom and Gomorrah did in fact exist, they must have been located at the end of the Dead Sea. 

Dr. Shraub writes, “Popular theories about Sodom and Gomorrah being located in the southern basin of the Dead Sea just don’t make logical sense.  What we have found, in fact, located in the hills above the sea, in an area that could be easily defended, are two cities that may have indeed been the infamous cities.”

In 1924, archaeologists made a discovery in Jordon, near the south end of the Dead Sea, that shed the first scientific light on the Biblical account. 

Proven to have existed in the same place and time as the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the remains of a walled city called Bab edh-Dhra, meaning “gate of the arm,” was discovered; a city that in 1965 was dated to 3000 BCE.

With this discovery, scholars began to speculate as to the possibility that this may have been one of the two cities mentioned in the Biblical telling

Eight years later, in 1973, another startling find was made that made scholars examine that possibility even closer.  Just seven miles south of Bab edh-Dhra, a city known as Numera (sometimes spelled Numara), dated to the same period was located. 

But did two citied located in the right place and time prove that they were the most well-known cities of the Bible?

As Rabbi David Wolpe of the University of Judaism, Los Angeles notes, “If Sodom and Gomorrah were real, as many historians believe possible, their citizens would have been a sturdy, clever people.  Today, the area surrounding the Dead Sea is one of the most arid, desolate areas in the world.  To survive means having exceptional resourcefulness.  Five thousand years ago, any people who lived here would have had to have been resourceful indeed.”  As many scholars who support the existence of Sodom and Gomorrah point out, this is the very description oral accounts given those said to have lived in Bab edh-Dhra and Numera.

According to existing documents, oral accounts, and archaeological evidence, Bab edh-Dhra had been a thriving city for approximately 1000 years by the time of Abraham.  But more essential to the scientific perspective is that modern carbon-14 dating indicates that both Bab edh-Dhra and Numera collapsed around 2350 BCE, at the same time and in the same way. 

Also, what was quite interesting is that wide-spread burn marks are still clearly visible throughout both sites, with the remains of walls and towers that had obviously collapsed in some violent manner--and not by simple erosion as many opponents of this theory have suggested. 

But does that mean these cities met their demise as a result of supernatural intervention?

Image via Michael Luddeni

Although a 1965 excavation at Bab edh-Dhra revealed far more than anyone had hoped for--well-preserved pottery, a cemetery, and human remains spanning a millennium--even simple aspects of ancient life there, such as how people looked or lived 5000 years ago, remains largely a matter of speculation.  And unfortunately, no writings were uncovered to support the Biblical tale or offer an alternate explanation. 

From 1975 to 1981, archaeologists turned their attention Numera, and while extensive excavation provided fewer cultural artifacts than Bab edh-Dhra, scholars uncovered what they consider to be the most telling find of all. 

As they were clearing away the debris of a collapsed tower at the eastern end of the site, they uncovered the skeletal remains of three individuals; the tower had clearly fallen and crushed them.  This means that whatever happened at Numera occurred so quickly that residents didn’t even have time to react: much as one might expect to have been the case with an event of Biblical proportions.

Today, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is part of Judaism, Christianity, as well as the Islam faith.  

It is said that a secret group of Christian monks has built a shrine to Saint Lot near the Dea Sea, and many salt formations dotting the Dead Sea's coast are honored as Lot's wife; proof of God's power.  

Additionally, there has been enough supportive evidence uncovered at Bab edh-Dhra and Numera to justify an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.  

References:

Bab edh-Dhra’: Excavations in the Town Site (1975-1981). Reports of the Expedition to the Dead Sea Plain, Jordan. Vol. 2. Part 1.

“Mud-Brick town Walls in EB I-II Jordan and their Significance for Understanding the Formation of New Social Institutions.” Pp. 247-52 In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, IX. Amman: Department of Antiquities.

“Life in the Earliest Walled towns on the Dead Sea Plain: Bab edh-Dhra’ and Numeira" (with Meredith S. Chesson). Pp. 245-52 in Crossing Jordan eds.T. E. Levy et alii. London: Equinox Press.

“Death and Dying on the Dead Sea Plain: Cemeteries of Feifa, Bab edh-Dhra’ and Khirbet Khanazir" (with Meredith S. Chesson). Pp. 253-60 in Crossing Jordan. Eds. T. E. Levy et alii. London: Equinox Press.

Images via Wikipedia.org

 

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