In 1975 a
great archive of clay tablets dating to 2400–2350 BC was discovered at
Tell Mardikh, ancient Ebla, in northern Syria (Archi 1997). One of the
tablets is a geographic atlas listing 289 place names. An analysis of
two segments of the list by William Shea indicates that they are sites
located in Palestine, possibly places visited by merchants from Ebla (Shea
1983). The second segment, sites 188–219, traces a route from Syria
south through the central hill country of Cisjordan, along the western
shore of the Dead Sea, south of the Dead Sea Plain and then north
along the east side of the Plain and Dead Sea. In the area
corresponding to the east side of the Dead Sea Plain there are two
places named—Number 210, Admah, and Number 211, Sodom. If Shea’s
readings are correct, this would be the only confirmed mention of the
Cities of the Plain outside the Bible.1
But why were not the other three cities, Gomorrah, Zoar, and Zeboiim,
mentioned? The excavations at Numeira perhaps can shed some light on
that question. These excavations revealed that Numeira (=Gomorrah) was
in existence for only a short period of time, less than 100 years. It
appears that the Ebla Atlas was composed prior to the founding of
Numeira. The same may true of Zoar and Zeboiim.
been some corroborating evidence from Bab edh-Dhra for this proposed
Among the cultural items
that reflect foreign contact…the majority—including architectural
features, cylinder seal impressions, jewelry, some forms of pottery,
and a carved bull’s head—show Syrian, if not Mesopotamian, influence
(Schaub 1993: 135).
Means of the
Destruction of the Cities of the Plain
provides a detailed description of the calamity that befell the Cities
of the Plain. In that description are two Hebrew phrases and a
Route traced by the
Ebla Geographic Atlas. Site 210 is Admah and site 211
Sodom—the only known occurrence of names of the Cities of the
Plain outside the Bible.
that must be examined in order to understand the event: goprît
the material that fell on the cities (Gn 19:24), hapak, what
happened to the cities (Gn 19:25), and keqîtor
hakkibšan, what Abraham observed (Gn 19:28).
The word goprît
is a foreign loan word, most likely derived from Akkadian ki/ubritu,
which means sulfurous oil (black sulfur) (Gentry 1999). The word
accompanying goprît, waÉeš,
simply means "and fire." In other words, the material that fell on
Sodom and Gomorrah and the Cities of the Plain (except Zoar) was a
burning petroleum product. The term hapak means to overturn, or
looked down upon the scene of devastation, he observed smoke rising
from the land of the plain, keqîtor
hakkibšan, "like smoke from a furnace." A kibšan is a pottery
kiln (Wood 1992). Air passing through a pottery kiln does so by means
of a forced draft resulting from the heating of the air. The smoke
exiting from a kiln is forced out of the exit flue and pushed upward
into the air. That is what Abraham observed—smoke from the land of the
plain being forced upwards. The word used for smoke, qîtor, is not the
word used for smoke from an ordinary fire. Rather, it is a thick
smoke, the smoke that comes from sacrifices. It is clear that
something unnatural or extraordinary is recorded here.
description, then, of the destruction was of burning material raining
down from above, accompanied by an overturning of the cities and thick
smoke being forced upward from the land. A rather apocalyptic scene,
one that was forever etched in the minds of the ancient Israelites.
The awful devastation and destruction that occurred that day became
the example par excellence of God’s judgment of sin.
reading it would seem that the destruction was caused by a volcanic
eruption. When geologist Frederick G. Clapp visited the region in 1929
and again in 1934 he found that there was no evidence to indicate that
lava or ash eruptions had taken place as recently as 4,000 years ago.
He determined that topographic relationships render it probable that
the last outburst in the vicinity took place thousands of years before
Abraham’s time (Clapp 1936a: 906; 1936b: 339–40). More recent
assessments support that conclusion (Neev and Emery 1995: 147).
the Dead Sea area, showing the geological strata and fault
lines on either side of the Dead Sea Plain. A possible
explanation for the destruction of the Cities of the Plain is
that pressure from an earthquake caused underground flammable
petroleum products to be forced up through the fault lines. They
then become ignited and rained down on the surrounding
countryside. The sites of Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira are located
precisely on the eastern fault line.
that the region south of the Dead Sea is very unstable, being bordered
by fault lines on the east and west. Earthquakes are common in this
area. After surveying the geology of the district, Clapp concluded
that combustible materials from the earth destroyed the cities. He
found bitumen and petroleum in the area. Natural gas and sulfur, which
normally accompany bitumen and petroleum, are also present. These
combustible materials could have been forced from the earth by
subterranean pressure brought about by an earthquake resulting from
the shifting of the bounding faults (Clapp 1936a: 906; 1936b: 340).
Geologists who have studied the area in recent times agree with
Clapp’s reconstruction (Harris and Beardow 1995: 360; Neev and Emery
1995: 13–14; 33, 37). If lightning or surface fires ignited these
combustibles as they came spewing forth from the ground, it would
indeed result in a holocaust such as described in Genesis 19. It is
significant to note that both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira lie at the edge
of the plain, exactly on the eastern fault line!
after having previously spoken with the Lord, knew of the impending
judgment. Rising early in the morning he looked toward the Cities of
the Plain from his vantage point at Hebron, high on the Mount Judah
range west of the Dead Sea. Smoke rising from the plain south of the
Dead Sea would have been readily visible from Hebron. In fact, mist
rising from the Dead Sea can be seen almost any day from there.
Abraham’s eyewitness description fits the theory of a conflagration of
petroleum products, for such a conflagration would result in a thick
black smoke being forced into the sky by the heat and pressure of the
burning materials shooting out of the fissure in the earth.
the Town Sites
earthquake occurred at the time the cities were destroyed is clear
from the work of geologist Jack Donahue of the University of
Pittsburgh. At Bab edh-Dhra he found that during the period of
occupation there was sedimentation, or infilling, and a build up of
cultural debris (Donahue 1985: 135). Following the destruction, this
changed to an erosional regime, brought about by an uplift of the area
(Donahue 1980: 50; 1985: 134–36). The uplift produced an increase in
the elevation differential between the town site and the Wadi Kerak on
the north side of at least 28 m (92 ft) (Donahue 1985: 134). This
resulted in severe erosion on the north side of Bab edh-Dhra, causing
the north wall to eventually collapse into the wadi (Donahue 1985:
the findings were similar:
It is suggested here that
the tower collapse and extensive burn layers over the site were
caused by an earthquake generated by fault movement (Donahue 1985:
earthquake caused either an uplift in the vicinity of the site or a
down dropping of the rift valley to the west, resulting in a 50 m (164
ft) increase in elevation differential between the town site and Wadi
Numeira to the north (Donahue 1984: 86; 1985: 137). It also caused a
change in direction of the Wadi Numeira, which flowed south of the
site during the period of occupation (Donahue 1984: 86, 88; 1985:
138). Heavy erosion following the event resulted in the loss of the
north part of the settlement, including the north defensive wall
(Donahue 1984: 87; 1985: 138, 139).
storage pits at Numeira. Many such pits were found at
Numeira, but they were all empty. Evidence suggests the
inhabitants fled their homes with as much food as they could
carry, with the idea of living out in the open until the
earthquake was over. They never returned—Numeira lay in ruins
until discovered and excavated by archaeologists in the 1970s.
found at Numeira suggests the residents fled the town in haste. Most
identifiable doorways from the latest phase of occupation had been
deliberately blocked. This apparently was an attempt to strengthen the
homes against damage. In addition, no valuable small finds were
discovered nor were there foodstuffs in the storage facilities. On the
other hand, large quantities of pottery were found on the floors of
the houses, evidently too heavy and bulky to transport in the hasty
evacuation. It appears the residents had some early warning, such as
preliminary tremors, and did what they could to prepare. They shored
up their houses, gathered up their valuables and as much food as they
could carry, and fled their homes never to return (Coogan 1984:
the Bab edh-Dhra Cemetery
detailed the evidence that both town sites were destroyed by an
overwhelming conflagration. Additional evidence from the cemetery at
Bab edh-Dhra demonstrates that the destruction included areas outside
the towns, thus involving "the entire plain" (Gn 19:25) and that it
"came out of the heavens" (Gn 19:24).
Early Bronze III period the dead at Bab edh-Dhra were interred in
charnel houses built above ground. Five of the buildings that were
excavated, A8, A22, A41, A51 and A55, were in use at the end of the
life of the city. In each case the building was extensively burned (Schaub
and Rast 1989: 326–26, 344, 384; Rast and Schaub 1978: 24; Rast and
Schaub 1980: 37).
The author standing in
Charnel House A22 at Bab edh-Dhra. The largest of the
excavated charnel houses, or funerary buildings (15.5 x 7.8 m, or
51 x 26 ft), the structure was destroyed by fire at the same time
the city was destroyed. The fire started on the roof and spread to
the interior when the roof collapsed. This provides graphic
evidence that "the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and
Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens" (Gn 19:24).
explanation the excavators offer for this burning is that it was
intentionally done by a human agent that also destroyed the town (Rast
and Schaub 1978: 24; Rast 1987: 49; Schaub and Rast 1989: 396). The
evidence we have discussed above points to destruction by earthquake
rather than by a human agent. Even if Bab edh-Dhra was destroyed by an
seems highly improbable that a conqueror would go into a cemetery
located several hundred meters away and systematically set fire to and
demolish all the burial houses. This would be an unprecedented act for
which there are no known parallels. There is a more logical
1979 season, the last and largest of the charnel houses, A22, was
excavated. The building was 15.5 x 7.8 m. (50.8 x 25.6 ft) in size and
constructed of mud bricks. The floor consisted of small pebbles and
the roof was made up of wooden beams, reed matting and mud. Underneath
the rubble, the archaeologists found the interior of the building
filled with pottery and other funerary objects, and piles of human
skeletal remains and skulls in disarray (Rast and Schaub 1980: 36–37).
had been severely burned. Remnants of charred posts and beams from the
roof were found among the ruins. Much ash was also found, along with
bricks that were turned red from the intense heat. More intriguing
than the mere fact that the charnel house was destroyed by fire,
however, is the way in which it was burned—from the inside out. At
first, the archaeologists thought this was a deliberate burning
associated with some religious or hygienic practice. The excavation of
Charnel House A22, however, has laid that theory to rest. It is now
evident that the roof, engulfed in flames, collapsed into the building
and caused the interior burning:
The extensive burn is
clear evidence of the tomb’s destruction by fire. Burning was
concentrated along the interior wall in the center of both sectors,
where the majority of posts and beams were uncovered. Along the
south wall impressions of desiccated beams angled down toward the
interior transverse wall, indicating that they had collapsed in the
center across the interior wall (Rast and Schaub 1980: 37).
destruction of the charnel houses at Bab edh-Dhra was brought about by
the roofs first being set on fire, then collapsing, causing the
interiors of the buildings to burn. This is entirely consistent with
the Biblical description of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,
when "the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from
the Lord out of the heavens" (Gn 19:24).
Date of the
precise date for the destruction of the Cities of the Plain can be
worked out from the internal chronology of the Old Testament. Since
the Lord told Abraham and Sarah about the coming birth of Isaac just
prior to the destruction (Gn 18:10–14), the date of the destruction
can be calculated based on the birth date of Isaac. If we assume a
mid-15th century BC date for the Exodus, the date for the destruction
would then be ca. 2070 BC.2
archaeological date for the destruction of Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira,
however, is considerably earlier than this. Rast gives the date for
the end of the Early Bronze III period and the destruction of the
cities as 2350 BC (1987: 47; 1992: 560). Schaub places the date
slightly later at 2300 BC (1997: 249).
3 This leaves a discrepancy between the Biblical
date and the archaeological date of 230–280 years. Does this mean that
we cannot correlate the archaeological findings at Bab edh-Dhra and
Numeira with the events described in the Bible?
the archaeological date for the end of the EB III period cannot be
determined with any degree of certainty. Dating for the Bronze Age in
Palestine is dependent upon synchronisms with the known history of
Egypt. To date, we have no such synchronisms for the EB III period.
There are a few correlations for the previous EB II period, suggesting
that it was approximately contemporary with the Archaic Period (First
and Second Dynasties) in Egypt, ca. 3100–2700 BC (Mazar 1990: 135;
Ben-Tor 1992: 122; Kitchen 1996: 11). The dates for the Archaic Period
only are known to within 200 years (Kitchen 1991: 202).
connections for the beginning of the ensuing Middle Bronze Age
indicate that it was roughly contemporary with the beginning of the
12th Dynasty of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, ca. 1973 BC (Mazar 1990:
151; Ben-Tor 1992: 159–60; Kitchen 1996: 11).
Manfred Bietak, based on his important work at
Tell el- DabĚa,
Egypt, places the beginning of the 12th Dynasty at ca. 1973 BC and the
beginning of the Palestinian Middle Bronze period somewhat later at
ca. 1900 BC (1997: 90, 125–26). The dates for the Middle Kingdom are
known fairly well, within plus or minus 10 years, according to Kenneth
Kitchen, a recognized authority on Egyptian chronology (1996: 9).
intervening 700–800 years from the end of EB II to the beginning of MB
should be divided between the EB III and EB IV periods is strictly an
It is thought that EB III was the longer of the two periods because of
multiple phases of building and destruction found at a number of
sites, including Bab edh-Dhra (Ben-Tor 1992: 123). It is entirely
within the realm of possibility, therefore, that the destruction of
Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira could have occurred at the Biblical date of
ca. 2070 BC. We shall have to await further discoveries before an
accurate archaeological date can be assigned to the end of EB III.
Time of Year
When the Destruction Occurred
There is one
additional correlation that can be made between the Biblical record
and the archaeological findings—the time of year when the earthquake
occurred. As pointed out by William Shea, the time can be set at late
spring or early summer (1988: 21–22). When the angels visited Abraham
the Lord announced,
"I will surely return to
you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son"…"At the
appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall
have a son" (Gn 18:10, 14, RSV).
If we assume
that conception occurred approximately one month after the
announcement, it would place the visit of the angels, and thus the
destruction of the Cities of the Plain, in the late spring or early
well-preserved ruins at Numeira produced a number of surprises,
including whole grapes.5
During the 1977 season a large cache was found.
It is remarkable, for
example, that the grapes in Locus 17 of SE 3/1 were preserved even
with their outer skins, due perhaps to the burning material which
collapsed over the area and sealed these items (Rast 1981: 43).
Although carbonized whole
grapes have been reported from Salamis, Hesban and Jericho, the size
of the Numeira hoard, which consisted of over 700 whole grapes, is
very uncommon (McCreery 1981: 168).
that the grapes were intact indicates that they were freshly
harvested. In the hot climate of the Dead Sea valley the harvesting of
grapes occurs earlier than other parts of the country—in the late
spring or early summer. In the 1981 season more grapes were found,
prompting the excavator to comment on the chronological implications:
The infrequent small
finds included…more whole carbonized grapes with the stems attached
and what preliminary analysis indicates were carbonized watermelon
seeds (both evidence for dating the destruction of the site to late
spring) (Coogan 1984:77).
archaeological, geographical and epigraphic evidence is reviewed in
detail, it is clear that the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah
have now been found. What is more, this evidence demonstrates that the
Bible provides an accurate eyewitness account of events that occurred
southeast of the Dead Sea over 4,000 years ago.
1 The original
epigrapher of the Ebla expedition, Giovanni Pettinato, claimed in
1976 to have found the names Sodom, Gomorrah and Zoar/Bela in the
Ebla tablets. Alfonso Archi, Pettinato’s successor as Ebla
epigrapher, vigorously contested this. See the discussion in Shea
2 1450 Exodus (1 Kgs
6:1; Jgs 11:26) + 430, length of Egyptian Sojourn (Ex 12:40), +
130, Jacob’s age when he entered Egypt (Gn 47:9), + 60, Isaac’s
age when Jacob was born (Gn 25:26), + 1, the pregnancy of Sarah
with Isaac = 2071 BC.
3 Carbon 14 dates for
the end of the EB III period at both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira are
much too early and have been disregarded by the excavators (Rast
and Schaub 1980: 45–47). Similarly, C14 dates for the end of the
succeeding EB IVA period of 2200 BC (Schaub 1993: 136) may be too
4 The end of EBIII is
given as 2350 BC in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (Dever 1992; 110),
2200 BC in the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in
the Holy Land (vol. 4, p. 1529) (1993), and 2300 BC in The Oxford
Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (vol. 5, p. 413)
5 The grapes of Sodom
and Gomorrah are referred to in Deuteronomy 32:32.
Texts. Pp. 184–86 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the
Near East 2, ed. E.M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Early Bronze Age. Pp. 81–125 in The Archaeology of Ancient Israel,
ed. A. Ben-Tor. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Center of Hyksos Rule: Avaris (Tell el-DabĚa).
Pp. 87–139 in The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological
Perspectives, ed. E.D. Oren. Philadelphia: The University Museum.
Geology and Bitumens of the Dead Sea Area. Bulletin of Petroleum
Geologists 20: 881–909.
Site of Sodom and Gomorrah. American Journal of Archaeology 40:
Numeira 1981. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research
Palestine, Archaeology of (Bronze and Iron Ages). Pp. 109–14 in The
Anchor Bible Dictionary 5, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
Geology. Pp. 47–52 in Preliminary Report of the 1979 Expedition to
the Dead Sea Plain, Jordan, eds. W.E. Rast and R.T. Schaub. Bulletin
of the American Schools of Oriental Research 240: 21–61.
Geologic Reconstruction of Numeira. Bulletin of the American Schools
of Oriental Research 255: 83–88.
Hydrologic and Topographic Change During and After Early Bronze
Occupation at Bab edh-Dhra. Pp. 131–40 in Studies in the History and
Archaeology of Jordan 2, ed. A. Hadidi. Amman: Department of
Personal communication, October 1.
and Beardow, A.P.
Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: A Geotechnical Perspective.
Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology 28: 349–62.
Chronology of Ancient Egypt. World Archaeology 23: 201–208.
Historical Chronology of Ancient Egypt, a Current Assessment. Acta
Archaeologica 67: 1–13.
Archaeology of the Land of the Bible. New York: Doubleday.
Flotation of the Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira Plant Remains. Pp. 165–69
in The Southeastern Dead Sea Plain Expedition: An Interim Report of
the 1977 Season, ed. W.E. Rast and R.T. Schaub. Annual of the
American Schools of Oriental Research 46, ed. J.A. Callaway.
Cambridge MA: American Schools of Oriental Research.
and Emery, K.O.
Destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jericho: Geological,
Climatological, and Archaeological Background. New York: Oxford
Settlement at Numeira. Pp. 35–44 in The Southeastern Dead Sea Plain
Expedition: An Interim Report of the 1977 Season, ed. W.E. Rast and
R.T. Schaub. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 46,
ed. J.A. Callaway. Cambridge MA: American Schools of Oriental
Bronze Age Cities Along the Dead Sea. Archaeology 40: 42–49.
and Schaub, R.T.
Preliminary Report of Excavations at Bâb edh-DhraĚ,
1975. Pp. 1–32 in The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental
Research, vol. 43, ed. D.N. Freedman. Cambridge MA: American Schools
of Oriental Research.
Preliminary Report of the 1979 Expedition to the Dead Sea Plain,
Jordan. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 240:
Pp. 130–36 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in
the Holy Land 1, ed. E. Stern. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Pp. 248–51 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near
East 1, ed. E.M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University Press.
and Rast, W.E.
Excavations in the Cemetery, Directed by Paul W. Lapp (1965–1967).
Reports of the Expedition to the Dead Sea Plains, Jordan, 1. Winona
Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.
Palestinian Segments From the Eblaite Geographical Atlas. Pp.
589–612 in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth, ed. C.L. Meyers and
M. O’Connor. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.
Numeira. Archaeology and Biblical Research 1: 12–23.
Pp. 38–39 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 4, ed. D.N. Freedman. New