Those interested in biblical archaeology have perked up recently, as a paper published in the scientific magazine, Nature, suggests that “A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea.” Some archaeologists and other scholars identify Tall el-Hammam as the ancient site of the city of Sodom, where its destruction by “fire and brimstone” is recorded in Genesis 19.
The Nature paper describes evidence that shows that a large meteor, roughly the size of the Tunguska 1908 meteor strike in Russia, devastated a region on the eastern side of the Jordan River, around 1650 BCE. Research shows that melted pottery and other artifacts found at Tall el-Hammam indicates that an explosion 1000 times more intense than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, wiped out the population of the region, and even deposited a large amount of salt, making the area uninhabitable for decades.
Some Christians have concluded from this paper that we now have strong scientific evidence, demonstrating the historical accuracy of this particular episode from the Bible. However, other Christian archaeologists and scholars are not persuaded. Archaeologist Todd Bolen, for example, argues that the location of Tall el-Hammam does not line up with the standard interpretation of Genesis 18:16, which some suggest indicates that Sodom was located nearer towards the southern end of the Dead Sea, as opposed to Tall el-Hammam’s location, north of the Dead Sea.
A more problematic objection to the story associated with the Nature paper comes from Dallas Seminary Old Testament bible scholar Eugene Merrill, who argues that the timeline for Tall el-Hammam’s destruction in about 1650 BCE does not line up with biblical chronology. Dr. Merrill follows what might be called a strict, literal interpretation of the numbers found in much of the Old Testament, which would place the destruction of Sodom much earlier, about 2067 BCE. Dr. Merrill’s approach to biblical chronology is consistent with a belief in “Young Earth Creationism”, which places the creation of the world roughly 6000 years ago. He also adopts what is considered to be an Early Date theory of when the Exodus for Egypt occurred, in the 15th century BCE. Dr. Merrill identifies several problems with the 1650 BCE date for Sodom’s destruction:
- The late Middle Bronze Age date of Sodom’s destruction, driven by archaeological considerations, must be the iron-clad standard against which the biblical chronology is ascertained.
- This date demands a birth date of Abraham about 1699; since he was 175 when he died, that occurred in 1524, 76 years after the destruction of Sodom.
- Isaac’s lifespan is 1599-1419 and Jacob’s 1539-1392!
- Even a 215 year Egyptian sojourn must cover the years 1415-1200, requiring the Exodus to be in 1200 and the conquest, 40 years later, in 1160-1150.
- The various judges and the reign of Saul must be compressed between 1150 and 1010, the established date of the commencement of David’s reign.
- The only way out of the conundrum if Hammam is Sodom is to (1) disregard the biblical figures for the ages of the patriarchs; (2) jettison or greatly reduce the 215-year sojourn; and (3) minimize the length of the ministries of the judges and the reign of Saul nearly to the vanishing point.
Dr. Merrill suggests that the 1650 BCE date for Sodom’s destruction would require a chronology that fits within something like the following framework, a framework that Dr. Merrill believes does not fit within the Bible. Non-literal numbering estimates are highlighted below:
- Abraham was 75 at the 1600 date of Sodom’s destruction; therefore, he was born in 1675.
- Isaac was born in Abraham’s 50th year—1625.
- Jacob was born in Isaac’s 30th year—1595.
- Jacob moved his family to Egypt in his 60th year—1535.
- The sojourn lasted for 215 years—1535-1320.
- The exodus took place in 1320.
- The Sinai wanderings took 20 years—1320-1300.
- The conquest took 10 years–1300-1290.
- The administration of the judges lasted for 250 years—1290-1040.
- Samuel’s tenure was 10 years in length—1040-1030.
- Saul reigned for 20 years—1030-1010.
- David ascended to the throne in 1010.
Dr. Steve Collins is perhaps the leading archaeologist who has studied the site at Tall el-Hammam, a committed evangelical Christian, and professor at Trinity Southwest University. Collins fully accepts the 1650 BCE date and location of Sodom at Tall el-Hammam. Collins argues that the arithmetic interpretation of numbers by Dr. Merrill is misleading, and that other biblical evidence lines up better with the 1650 BCE date and location of Sodom at Tall el-Hammam (from a YouTube video recorded at Tall el-Hammam). Much of Collins’ reasoning is aligned with arguments presented by the esteemed Egyptian archaeologist Kenneth Kitchen, and author of the comprehensive On the Reliability of the Old Testament., though it must be noted that Collins does not accept the so-called Late Date theory of when the Exodus happened, dated to the 13th century BCE.
The most central of Dr. Collins’ arguments in favor of Sodom’s destruction near 1650 BCE, at Tall el-Hammam, is from archaeological population and tree density studies conducted in the Jordan Valley area. These studies show that the population of the Jordan Valley area was drastically reduced near the year 1650, which would coincide with the data from the Nature paper, postulating a large meteor strike, which would result in a significant and rapid population loss. However, the same research indicates that the 2067 BCE date for Sodom’s destruction proposed by Merrill does not coincide with any change in population, as the population of the Jordan Valley was already relatively low for 100-200 years prior to Merrill’s proposed date for Sodom’s destruction.
This analysis begs the question: Is a bird in the hand worth two in the bush?
Nevertheless, the debate over the timing and location of Sodom’s destruction and whereabouts has not been settled by the Nature paper. But it does lend some credence to the argument that the basic historical chronology of the Bible is still credible, in an age where skepticism is the order of the day.