Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Biblical Problems with Locating Sodom at Tall el-Hammam

(Guest post by Bill Schlegel at The Master’s College, Israel Bible Extension)

As Todd has noted previously, there are archaeological and chronological problems with identifying Tall el-Hammam with Sodom. Here are some scriptural/textual considerations. A main reason that a northern location is sought for Sodom is the belief that Gen. 13:10-12 places Sodom in the region of the “Plain (kikkar) of the Jordan” that is, north of the Dead Sea (Gen 13:10). However, I don’t think Gen. 13:10-12 restricts Sodom to the Kikkar of the Jordan. Yes, Lot chose the Kikkar of the Jordan and travelled east from the Hill Country. However, Genesis 13:11-12 implies passage of time during which Lot moved around. That Lot “pitched his tent as far as Sodom” suggests a geographical separation from the “Kikkar of the Jordan.” Also, the word kikkar does not exclusively refer only to the area of the Rift Valley just north of the Dead Sea. “Kikkar of the Jordan” can refer to the area as far north as Sukkoth (1 Kings 7:46). The word kikkar may be used to refer to other parts of the Rift Valley in general, especially when not accompanied by the appellation “of the Jordan” (Gen. 19:17, 28; 2 Sam. 18:23). In other words, Sodom could be in the kikkar, without being in the Kikkar of the Jordan.

In favor of a southern location, Scripture associates Sodom geographically with the “Valley of Siddim, which is the Salt Sea” an area distinct from the Kikkar of the Jordan (Gen. 14:3, 8, 10). The meaning of Siddim, “lime, whitewash” (LXX “salty”) and the pits in the region suggest a more southern location for Sodom. Also, locating Sodom and Gomorrah in the south fits better the post-destruction environment described by the prophets (Deut. 29:23, Isa. 13:19-20, Jer. 49:18, 50:40; Zeph. 2:9) and a later battle between Judah and Edom at the site of Zair (from the same Hebrew word as Zoar to which Lot fled, 2 Kings 8:21).

I believe we will always have problems trying to locate Sodom and Gomorrah. Besides significant geological/geographical changes to the region associated with the divine destruction (Gen. 13:10), the divine destruction probably didn’t leave much (any?) of the cities to be found. The Hebrew for these cities’ destruction is unique (a combination of shachet “destroy” and hafach, “turn upside down”). It is unlikely that any of these tells/ruins in the Rift (north or south) are Sodom or Gomorrah. More likely is that these ruins represent peripheral cities, perhaps one was Zoar, which were spared the divine judgment.

Tall el-Hamman is an interesting dig. There’s no question that this is the region where Israel camped before striking across the Jordan. Tall el-Hamman may be Abel-Shittim (Num. 33:49). But this could be a problem for the excavators—identifying the Iron Age remains at Tall el-Hamman with another Israelite town goes against identifying Tall el-Hamman with Sodom, because it is unlikely that what once was Sodom became the Israelites’ Abel-Shittim.


Plains of Moab and Tall el-Hammam from the west

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  • The archaeologist must be willing to change interpretation relative to new information. I believe that there has been enough new information, on this site alone, to show that Tall el-Hammam should not be identified with Sodom.

    By OpenID A B Chrysler, at Wed Jan 04, 07:39:00 AM  

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    By Blogger Dr M, at Wed Jan 04, 06:10:00 PM  

  • Bill,

    I agree with your article and also have my doubts about Sodom in this northern position. Not discounting the work in any way, but interpretation can be a messy business.

    You did not use the term "Arabah" in your article. The Arabah runs from the Sea of Galilee all the way down inclusive of Jordan river valley and the kikkar, inclusive of the Dead Sea and continues on south to Aqaba/Eilat. The name for this long-version of the "Arabah" was more prevalent in the recent past - Ottoman times and earlier - when the area was very dry. It is seen on many 19th century maps. Today most only consider the strip SOUTH of the Dead Sea as the "Arabah" and that is simply not the case historically. Pet peeve with me.

    That said, the kikkar of the Jordan is only a small circular space in this very long "Arabah" depression. Your implication that the kikkar remains green and well-planted, right where Tall el-Hammam is located, as opposed to the Siddim region down south, which remains abandoned, desolate and salted! Does create a challenge. The 'green-ness' in the kikkar and the villages and farms nearby make it hard to identify with the scriptures' descriptions of Sodom's fate. I also [obviously] agree that this east bank slope is the Moav encampment area for the Israelites. Very interesting dig site. Thanks again for adding color and light to this ongoing work.

    By Blogger Daniel M. Wright, at Thu Jan 05, 08:42:00 AM  

  • Aside from the archaeological problem, the Bible presents a geographic challenge.

    When Abram and Lot divided the land, they were between Bethel and Ai. Looking east, the ridges running to the Jordan Valley form a notch that provides a near unobstructed view to the plain of Moab and Tell el-Hammam. Tell el-Hammam is a major tell. Its position below the current dam and reservoir indicate it was a well-watered and prosperous site. It makes the area a good candidate for the "cities of the plain" in a region that was like the "garden of the Lord" - you can see why it tempted Lot. A downside is the mention of Zoar, which is generally located south-southeast of the Dead Sea. If that Zoar is meant, it can't be seen from where Lot and Abram stood. Maybe another Zoar is meant. Upside is the immediate proximity of the mountains to which Lot was told to flee. His illicit relations with his daughters produced Moab and Ammon. Tell el-Hammam sits right about where their borders would be if extended to the Jordan Valley floor. But wait ...

    When the strangers visited Abraham on their way to Sodom, he was at Mamre near Hebron. We're told, "When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way." It's impossible, as far as I've been able to determine, to see the plain of Moab and Tell el-Hammam from anywhere near Hebron. Later, we're told, "Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the LORD. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace. A possible solution is that Abraham accompanied the strangers for a significant distance, and after a long time reached a point where one could accurately say they "looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah" on the plain of Moab. Given his earnest pleading, maybe so.

    If Sodom was instead at the south end of the Dead Sea, the events at Mamre make more geographic sense. Additionally, you have the large salt deposit of Mt. Sedom (associated with Lot's wife) and asphalt pits (mentioned in Gen. 14) in the south. The events of Gen. 14, with mention of Seir, El Paran and Kedesh, put the setting in the south. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah only mobilize when the southern region is threatened - these clues argue for the south. Additionally, the Zared River waters the plain to the south-southeast of the Dead Sea and a Zoar was located there. One could argue this environment also fits what caught Lot's eye, but there's no way he and Abram could see it from Bethel-Ai.

    Some geologic factors ... While the Dead Sea's northern bay is about 1,300 feet deep, the southern bay is very shallow. The salt dome Mt. Sedom is immediately to the west. Salt domes often sit above pockets of natural gas, trapping them. I don't have the source, but I have read the Sedom dome has been forced upward (likely by gas pressure) within the last 5,000 years or so (the citation was to a John Wiley science book). My curiosity wonders if such an uplift could have been accompanied by a massive release of gas that spread across the adjacent plain, ignited and destroyed all life. Associated with the release of the underground gas could be the subsidence of the plain and the subsequentformation of the southern embayment of the Dead Sea. If so, Sodom could be beneath the waters there.

    It's an interesting question and I don't know the answer. When I read Gen. 13, I picture the northern site and when I read Gen. 18-19, I picture the southern one. When I read the newspaper, I picture the one on the west end of the Bay Bridge.

    By Blogger Unknown, at Tue Jan 10, 05:43:00 PM  

  • Does Ezekiel 16:46 provide clues to where at this time they thought Sodom was located? Isn't Tall el-Hammam east of Jerusalem but this verse says it would be south or can we not use this verse to help locate Sodom? The verse reads:

    “Your elder sister is Samaria, who dwells with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who dwells to the south of you, is Sodom and her daughters." (NKJV)

    By Blogger Unknown, at Sat Jan 21, 04:37:00 PM  

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    By Blogger Digger Dan, at Fri Feb 24, 06:48:00 AM  

  • The following from Steven Collins will post in several pieces...

    I realize that up until our recent excavations and publications that there was a systematic lack of data from north of the Dead Sea that could speak to the subject of Sodom’s location (although the N view was the dominant view among the 19th century explorer-scholars who examined the area). But now the evidence is quite vast regarding the northern sites such as Tall el-Hammam, Tall Nimrin, and other ancient cities NE of the Dead Sea. So some erroneous ideas about Sodom’s location may be somewhat excusable on this count. However, I find many of the comments regarding Tall el-Hammam/Sodom amusing, even comical, but some are cause for concern from a scientific point of view as they come from scholars who (perhaps) represent the state of “biblical geography” in some circles. Indeed, I find the level of textual, geographical and archaeological awareness in some of the comments to be cause for concern vis-à-vis the melding of disciplines in the service of biblical studies. A few simple examples will suffice…

    First, many comments about the Kikkar are nonsensical. To suggest that the Kikkar of the Jordan might include the Dead Sea portion of the Rift Valley is categorically in error. ‘The Jordan’ (hayarden) itself means “the descent, the going down.” Of what? Of the fresh (living) water, of course. The OT tracks this Descent = Jordan “from the mountains of Lebanon, to the Kinnereth, down the Descent, and ending at the bay of the Dead Sea at the mouth of the Jordan below Pisgah (= Nebo)” (five OT passages track these details). The descent of the living water ends when the descent itself ends: at the N end of the Dead Sea. The living hayarden “dies” as soon as it enters the dead waters of the “Arabah Sea.” Thus, the Descent = Jordan cannot pass beyond the physical termination at the lowest spot on the face of the earth, the surface of the Dead Sea. The Kikkar is “of hayarden,” the living water only. The meaning is clear: The Kikkar (= circle/disk) of the Descent is the broad alluvial plain of hayarden, N of the Dead Sea, which overspread its banks each year like the Nile in Egypt (thus its comparison to the Nile in Gen 13). There is no missing this when one understands the geographical data in the text. And it is no wonder (and exactly correct) that Lot could view the “entire Kikkar of the Descent” from the area of Bethel/Ai on the highlands WNW of Jericho. Sodom and the other Cities of the Kikkar of the Descent were also visible from there, from which Lot’s eastward trek took him to Sodom on the eastern side of the Kikkar of the Descent. All of this is absolutely incontrovertible. The biblical text is clear. The geography and topography are clear. The archaeology is clear because a massive city-state from the time of Abram actually exists there: Tall el-Hammam and its satellites.

    continued in another entry...

    By Blogger Dr. Steven Collins, at Sat Mar 03, 05:56:00 AM  

  • S. collins, continued...

    One little postscript to this is also worth noting: If, as S Sodom advocates claim, the Kikkar seen by Lot from Bethel/Ai included the Dead Sea portion of the Rift Valley, then it also included the area of the Jordan Valley N of the Dead Sea where Tall el-Hammam is located. Because the biblical text is reasonably clear that Sodom was the largest of the Kikkar cities, then Tall el-Hammam (which has every possible occupation to coincide with the time of Abram) would still be the most logical choice because it is several orders of magnitude larger than any other Bronze Age site in the entire length of the Rift Valley. Indeed, Tall el-Hammam existed during the time of Abram and Lot because it was continuously occupied from the Chalcolithic Period through the Middle Bronze Age and every period between. Thus, if Bab edh-Dhra was Sodom (which it most certainly was not), then the Genesis 13:1-12 scenario would be reduced to an historically ridiculous story with a hopelessly convoluted geography: Lot would head eastward from Bethel/Ai, but somehow wind up going mostly S to Bab edh-Dhra, although the text says he travelled only eastward. In the process, he would have passed right through the middle of the Kikkar territory of the Tall el-Hammam city-state (the most powerful such entity in the S Levant during the entire Bronze Age!) and chosen to go to Bab edh-Dhra which died in 2350 BCE with only a small un-walled, marginal settlement there down to about 2200 BCE (with nothing thereafter). In other words, no matter how you slice the chronology, Lot chose to bypass the vast, verdant lands of the thriving Tall el-Hammam city-state (right under his nose!) in order to make a topographically difficult journey of about 50 extra kilometers down to a dried-up, dusty vestige of a community in the last throes of extinction! And then you have to explain why the Genesis writer fails to mention this massive city-state through which main trade route passes from E to W across the Jordan Valley. The Sodom/Bab edh-Dhra scenario is categorically nonsensical, even silly. In fact, the Genesis writer does write wonderfully about the Tall el-Hammam city-state: he calls it the “Cities of the Kikkar of the Descent” (Gen 13) and “the Land of the Kikkar” (Gen 19:28). The term eretz hakikkar (Land of the Kikkar) must be given the same understanding as when “eretz” is used in other people or kingdom contexts: it refers to a distinctly separable socio-political, ethno-linguistic (as in Land of Egypt, Land of the Philistines, Land of Israel, Land of the Moabites, etc., etc.) populations identified within defined geographical ‘borders’ as understood by surrounding socio-political entities. The “Cities of the Plain/Land of the Kikkar” formulaic geography (Gen 10, 13, 14, 19) is an historically correct depiction of the Tall el-Hammam city-state (and likely also the Tall Nimrin entity with its satellites 6km to the north on the Kikkar) which dominated the S Jordan Valley for over 2500 years before the entire civilization was wiped out by a cataclysmic destruction toward the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Not recognizing massive Tall el-Hammam as Sodom, and opting instead for marginal Bab edh-Dhra, makes a mockery of the historical authenticity of the Genesis text and gives minimalists a perfect reason to doubt the reality of the Sodom tales (which they do!).

    Will continue in a follow-on...

    By Blogger Dr. Steven Collins, at Sat Mar 03, 05:58:00 AM  

  • S. Collins continues...

    A second little point is worth mentioning: How could a small, marginally-existing EB city like Bab edh-Dhra be Sodom which is listed along with the great Mesopotamian urban centers such as Babylon, Akkad and Uruk (Erek) in Genesis 10? (Not to mention the fact that nearby Numeira went out of operation 250 years before Bab edh-Dhra!). All the southern Dead Sea sites were small (fortified Hammam proper is at least 12 times larger than Bab edh-Dhra) and hardly worthy of such a mention! The Tall el-Hammam city-state was, on the other hand, of truly Mesopotamian proportions, and held the largest center of population for the longest period of time of any city in the southern Levant. It was a veritable political and cultural powerhouse that dominated the region for nearly 3,000 years. Certainly worthy of mention in Genesis 10! Indeed, if it isn’t Sodom, then the biblical geographers managed to miss completely the region’s dominant urban culture during the entire patriarchal period! All of the southern Dead Sea sites were dried up and dead several centuries before the time of Abram. When the climate changed toward the end of EB3 they simply couldn’t survive. However, the Tall el-Hammam city-state thrived right on through the Intermediate Bronze Age and through most of the Middle Bronze Age before its violent, terminal destruction leading to a 700-year occupational hiatus on the eastern Kikkar. That Hammam (and its many satellites) is the basis of the so-called “Cities of the Plain” formulaic geographical construct of Genesis is beyond question when one correctly assesses and compares the textual, geographical and archeological facts.

    Steven Collins

    By Blogger Dr. Steven Collins, at Sat Mar 03, 06:00:00 AM  

  • A third little point: Alleged chronological difficulties with Tall el-Hammam/Sodom stem from the penchant of modern interpreters to force the Bronze Age biblical lifespan numbers (thus the patriarchal chronology) into an artificial, base-10 arithmetic mold rather than allowing them to hold the authentic, formulaic/honorific values they actually represent (ex.: Joseph is given the death age of 110 because that is the proper “honorific death age” of a noble Egyptian, well documented in Egyptian writings). When one realizes that the Bronze Age patriarchal numbers cannot be equated in any way with our modern concept of absolute dating, one then finds that using historical synchronisms is a far superior method of linking the biblical and ANE histories together. That the patriarchs all suffered famine in Canaan is a good climatological signal that they belong to the latter part of MB2, because that is the time when regional climatological changes drove vast numbers of Asiatic Semites into Egypt (which population became the Hyksos of Delta Egypt). MB1, on the other hand, was a wet period which allowed the Canaanite culture to rise to its urban height with a burgeoning population supported by a thriving agricultural economy across the southern Levant; and the patriarchs don’t belong in that picture.

    These are just a few items, among dozens, that point to a northern Sodom at Tall el-Hammam. Those who beg to differ really should do themselves a favor and take several days to visit Tall el-Hammam and the Kikkar, and the southern sites, and get some firsthand experience with this whole issue. Those who have not thus studied the problem firsthand have absolutely no means of making any worthy contribution to this discussion (Bryant Wood has never been to Tall el-Hammam). To facilitate education on the issue, I suggest this blog set up a formal debate at the upcoming ASOR and/or SBL meetings in Chicago in November wherein several opposing scholars would debate me regarding Sodom’s location and identification. I will arrange the room, announce it, and have a videographer present to capture the whole thing in HD. I’ll even pay for the coffee and snacks! I guarantee the room will be full of interested scholars! So, let’s sit on an academic platform and have a real scientific debate for about three hours in Chicago next fall. I will be glad to give the southern Sodom theory such a proper and final farewell!

    Steven Collins, from the Dead Sea

    By Blogger Dr. Steven Collins, at Sat Mar 03, 06:01:00 AM  

  • S. Collins responds to Bill Schlegel's comment about Sodom not necessarily being on the Kikkar...

    Bill's comment is simply nonsensical. Sodom was one of the Cities of the Kikkar. Period. Lot was removed from the Kikkar because God was going to destroy "all the land of the Kikkar" and Sodom was on the Kikkar! Abram "looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the Kikkar, and saw smoke rising as if from a furnace." I think you need to read these passages in the original Hebrew and see what is, in fact, there. All the Cities of the Kikkar were on the Kikkar of the Jordan. That's what was destroyed, and even the vegetation on the Kikkar. Period. End of discussion.

    Steven Collins

    By Blogger Dr. Steven Collins, at Sat Mar 03, 07:21:00 AM  

  • S. Collins' addition to the Kikkar discussion:

    Schlegel has cited 1 Kings 7:46 as evidence that the Kikkar could possibly include the southern, Dead Sea portion of the Rift Valley. But wait, that passage extends the Kikkar of hayarden northward! The passage is also from the late Iron Age, showing that the meaning of Kikkar, at that point in time, extended somewhat farther north (but not much) than the area of Kikkar in the Bronze Age scriptures. But it is north, not south. Again hayarden, the descent, ends at the north end of the Dead Sea. To suggest that the Kikkar of the Jordan, the location of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, is anywhere in the Dead Sea valley is preposterous and a misrepresentation of the text. Further, the location of the so-called "vale of Siddim, the Dead Sea" has no necessary connection to the location of Sodom. The Cities of the Plain forces obviously met the army of Kedorlaomer as they moved northward from En Gedi (Hazazon Tamar) along a wide stretch of beach created by an extremely low (MB2!) Dead Sea level, which conditions create many large sinkholes as there are today (the MB2 level of the DS was about what it is today). Thus, the Vale of Siddim and the Dead Sea are really one and the same real estate, but when the water is extremely low you have the wide beach with dangerous sink holes (mud or clay pits). This was recently pointed out to me by Dr. Ritmeyer in a long discussion of these very issues. SC

    By Blogger Dr. Steven Collins, at Sun Mar 04, 07:47:00 AM  

  • S. Collins on Schlegel's comment about Tall el-Hammam as Abel Shittim...

    Obviously Schlegel has never spent much, or any time, on the eastern Kikkar or at Tall el-Hammam. Nor has he paid much attention to what the biblical text says about Abel Shittim. Called the place "where the top of Pisgah overlooks the(uninhabited) wasteland" (Num 21:20), Abel Shittim (meaning Accacias of Mourning) was a resting place for the Israelites, and nobody was home! After MB2 there were no cities or towns on the eastern Kikkar until Iron Age 2. Sodom was not rebuilt. The area was basically abandoned in the time of Moses. The Iron Age 2 locals simply built on top of the upper tall at Hammam because it's the most stragegic and protected piece of geography in that area. They probably had no clue about Sodom or what had been there in the distant past. Mostly, the locals had little or no access to the biblical text we enjoy. SC

    By Blogger Dr. Steven Collins, at Sun Mar 04, 08:01:00 AM  

  • Dr. Collins, thank you for your contributions here. I have read one interview in which your findings included skeletal remains with evident catastrophic termination of lives. Can you point me to the best source of up-to-date findings? The official website lacks any photos or reports of such findings.

    By Blogger Tim Graham, at Sun Mar 04, 05:36:00 PM  

  • Response to Tim:

    Thanks for your comment. We haven't put up the info from last season's end of season report because it is being published in ADAJ (Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan) and we were waiting to put up the 'official' journal version of it. Should be out soon. By the way, we just finished an 8-week season, and now have the main gateway system of the city, and it is remarkable for its size and overall complexity. And the entire outer gateway area is covered in a half-meter of black ash directly on the MBA plaza walking surface. You'll be seeing and hearing a lot about his in the future.

    Steven Collins

    By Blogger Dr. Steven Collins, at Tue Mar 06, 01:51:00 PM  

  • Awesome work. Thank you fr weighing in Mr Collins. Look forwrd to hearing more

    By Blogger Joe Meyer, at Sun Apr 07, 06:06:00 PM  

  • A response by Steven Collins:
    I strongly encourage readers of this blog to investigate the following links for more detailed discussion of the geography, chronology, and archaeology of Tall el-Hammam in relationship to biblical Sodom:
    Collins responds to Wood:
    Collins responds to Billington:
    Collins responds to Merrill:
    My comments in response to B. Schlegel are posted already. In terms of chronology, readers should pay particular attention to Dr. Eugene Merrill’s “Artifax” article contra my identification of Tall el-Hammm as Sodom, and my response to Dr. Merrill (included in the above links). My response to Clyde Billington’s contra-Hammam article in “Artifax” is also given. I also highly recommend reading my response to Bryant Wood’s contra-Hammam article in “Bible and Spade.” It may also be interesting to readers that I recently received a copy of a paper written by a doctoral candidate at Dallas Theological Seminary who independently assesses my views with those of others, including those on this blog. He comes down decidedly on the side of Tall el-Hammam as Sodom, particularly when compared with Bab edh-Dhra. This paper will also be presented in a special OT forum at DTS in the near future. We will also publish a version of it on our excavation website and provide the link when it’s available. It seems that the main objection to Tall el-Hammam as Sodom stems from blind acceptance of the patriarchal lifespan numbers as base-10, arithmetic values among a rather small circle of evangelicals who still rely on the ‘literalistic’ methodology of Bishop Ussher. Such a method puts the Great Flood ca. 2500 BC, even later in some versions. If literalists push the Flood date earlier (say, before 6000 BC or 10,000 BC as many suggest), it is a tacit admission that the numbers are, in fact, not to be taken literally.

    By Blogger Dr. Steven Collins, at Wed Sep 04, 02:21:00 PM  

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