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.
September 24th, 2021 at 7:55 pm
No. Articles like this clearly illustrate the literal mindedness, naivete and gullibility of most Christians. First of all the names Sodom and Gomorrah are eponymous. Apparently the average Christian is unfamiliar with that word and its meaning so I suggest you look it up. These names are a clue to the readers and hearers of the day regarding the “historicity” of the story. Also the ancients did not have movies and television so for them these ancient stories from the Near East served as entertainment. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is a fictional drama the equivalent of a drama and occasionally a comedy produced in Hollywood.
These extravagant ages mentioned above are also hints intended to tell the audience that the stories are mythological, metaphorical folktales. There are plenty of these hints in all the biblical tales. For example, in the closing of one of the three stories about how the Israelites came to occupy Jerusalem Yahweh throws (hail) stones at the enemy. There’s a memorial set up at a cave with five large stones commemorating the victory “which remain there to this day.” This is a very common motif in folklore. Remember in the closing of the story of the Princess and the Pea the pea is still in the museum “that is, if someone hasn’t stolen it.” The ancients recognized the mythological nature of the story but there are people today and even a few still in so-called academia that just can’t take a hint.
September 26th, 2021 at 7:45 pm
Hi, Fred. I am little puzzled as to what you mean in your response of “No.” Are you addressing this to my blog post, or to the paper cited in _Nature_?
Are you familiar with Pete Enns’ _The Bible Tells Me So_? Enns’ argument favors an idea similar to yours, in that much of what we see in the early writings of the Hebrew Scriptures is a way of “inventing” (???) their own history, in order to supply a coherent narrative, using mythological/metaphorical language and symbols.
But even Enns does not want to rule out an historical basis to these early narratives completely. Being able to express such a narrative mythologically should not be controversial. The question is does it rule out the historical?
Even the _Nature_ study suggests that the meteor event could have at least inspired the Sodom narrative in Genesis. If the thesis can be established, I am not sure how that necessarily rules out an historical core to the Sodom story.
Can you please elaborate a little bit here? Thank you.
September 26th, 2021 at 8:35 pm
No, we have not found Sodom. This commitment to the biblical myths as part of a historically based modern world has caused many Christians to interpret the biblical perspective as historical. That is until they are faced with definitive proof to the contrary. We should try to salvage these myths as history. That hides their true meaning and ignores the strong anti-intellectual strain of fundamentalism that dominates the historical interests invested in biblical archaeology.
And no, I am not familiar with Peter Enns.
September 26th, 2021 at 8:36 pm
We should NOT try to salvage these myths as history.
September 26th, 2021 at 10:18 pm
Thank you for your response, Fred. I think I understand your position.
I am curious though: Would you consider yourself a Christian, an agnostic, an atheist, or something else?
September 26th, 2021 at 10:36 pm
I’m an atheist. I previously signed on using my Facebook account. For no particular reason this time I used my real name. But you know me as Boris. We have had at least one lengthy discussion before on the historicity or lack thereof of Jesus.
September 26th, 2021 at 11:58 pm
Likewise. The problem we’re having is that by refusing to acknowledge the mythological nature of the Bible our society is just crawling with all kinds of false and even dangerous beliefs. The Bible can only be true, and I believe in a certain sense it is, if it is understood as having and teaching greater truths than can be received in a literal interpretation.
For example, like Moses, we all reach and see the Promised Land on the horizon that only our children and grandchildren will live to experience. The message here is an enduring metaphor and can only be understood in that sense. The biblical authors were much wiser than most Christians give them credit for. They treat them is if they were mere reporters and critics treat them even worse, as if they were dishonest reporters for CNN.
September 26th, 2021 at 11:46 pm
Oh, you are Boris! Ah, well, that makes sense. Good to engage with you again!
October 2nd, 2021 at 9:04 pm
I missed this earlier, but Inspiring Philosophy (IP) came out with a video back in February regarding Tall el-Hammam and Sodom:
An atheist YouTuber, “The Bible Skeptic”, did not address IP’s video, back addressed the Tall el-Hammam claim more generally:
IP came out with a written response:
The “The Bible Skeptic” came out with a rejoinder video:
Well, this may all sound like a ping-pong match, but either way, this exchange encourages readers and viewers to have better understanding of the Bible. My main concern with the “Tall el-Hammam is Sodom” claim is that Ron Wyatt claimed to have found it. Well, perhaps for once, Ron Wyatt was not as crazy as he often presented himself.
October 5th, 2021 at 9:01 pm
Some scientific criticism of the Nature paper is starting to appear, that is challenging the methodology of the research. This is peer-review in action. It would be a shame if the paper’s researchers were shown to be cheating, when presenting their research:
HT: Egyptologist David A. Falk