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Did Sodom and Gomorrah Really Exist?

Introduction

Many have speculated about the locations of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 13-19) and the so-called "Cities of the Plain," but their location and identification have remained elusive in the minds of some scholars. Several have linked Sodom and Gomorrah with Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira, but unconvincingly—these sites are too early and in the wrong place. W.F. Albright—arguably the most influential Near Eastern scholar of the 20th century—and his protégé G.E. Wright thought the Cities of the Plain might be under water at the south end of the Dead Sea. Others, including Tristram, Conder, Merrill and Thomson in the late 19th century, following the major historical tradition, made a case for a location north of the Dead Sea in the southern Jordan Valley. Still others, such as Burton MacDonald in his excellent work East of the Jordan: Territories and Sites of the Hebrew Scriptures (ASOR, 2000), identify two separate geographical traditions, one north and one south, for the locations of Admah/Zeboiim and Sodom/Gomorrah respectively.

Not a few scholars, including TeHEP Director, Steven Collins, believe that the textual evidence strongly supports a northern location in what is called the "Jordan Disk," the 25-kilometer diameter circle of the Jordan Valley immediately north of the Dead Sea. [For a detailed presentation of the northern view see S. Collins and L.C. Scott, Discovering the City of Sodom (Simon & Schuster/Howard Books, 2013).] The eastern side of the Disk encompasses at least fourteen named archaeological sites (and numerous others), and many of them have Middle Bronze Age occupation (Tall Nimrin, Tall el-Hammam and Tall Kafrayn have confirmed MB2 fortified occupation). Tall el-Hammam is the largest of these. Therefore, it would be unthinkable to ignore the likelihood that Tall el-Hammam (as well as Tall Nimrin, with its MB2 destruction and ensuing 500-year occupational hiatus) may be Sodom and Admah, respectively. Sodom is likely the larger of the two, Tall el-Hammam. Once aware of these connections, one cannot deny the level of interest that is generated in the light of these possibilities.

Many scholars have also identified Tall el-Hammam as Abel-Shittim ("mourning place of acacias"), the location of the Israelite encampment before they crossed the Jordan into Canaan. It is also a distinct possibility that Tall el-Hammam incorporates at least part of the Roman city of Livias (built by Herod Antipas), the government seat of Perea, frequented by John the Baptizer, and Jesus and his disciples.

If rigorous scholarship and responsible, objective archaeology confirm a link between Tall el-Hammam and Sodom (or between Tall Nimrin and Admah) or other possible biblical associations, then so be it. If the same approach suggests that some such connections are not warranted, then so be it. But we must not hide from the possibilities because of bias one way or the other. As A. J. Ayer's verification principle requires of any assertion, we must state clearly the criteria whereby any hypothesis can be verified and/or falsified, then follow the evidence wherever it leads. This is the strict method of science.

On the one hand, it is intellectually dishonest to dismiss the Bible as a site-selection parameter. There is no doubt that the Bible remains one of the best ancient geographical texts available to archaeologists and historians. And particular interest is generated in certain sites because of potential biblical connections. This is reality.

On the other hand, doing archaeology solely from a biblical perspective can mean missing the larger reality of Near Eastern cultural milieus. A biblical (hermeneutical) bias might possibly influence the interpretation of data which, ironically, could otherwise be used to illumine the biblical narrative itself. In all archaeological endeavors, what we must strive for is objectivity. Indeed, sites with no clear biblical connection are just as important for determining the history of the region. Archaeological importance should never be equated with biblical importance. A careful assessment of all evidential avenues is the only reasonable approach to archaeology.

With the importance of empirical investigation understood, the pragmatic perspective makes the probable link between biblical Sodom and Tall el-Hammam a significant factor. At any rate, we would be irresponsible not to investigate such potential connections.

Read more about the excavation of the "Jordan Disk" at the website of the Tell El-Hammam Excavation of Trinity Southwest University.

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