by Jeffrey J. Harrison

The maps in many Bibles make Israel look like a pretty ordinary place.  But nothing could be further from the truth. From the flat, barren deserts in the south to the soaring, snow-capped Mt. Hermon in the north, from the sunny Mediterranean coastline in the west to the plunging chasm of the Jordan Rift Valley on the east, Israel is a land of dramatic contrasts.  The Jordan Rift Valley descends more than 1,000 feet below sea level (1300 ft, 400 m), the deepest point on the surface of the earth above water.*  That's why the root meaning of Jordan is "to go down" (yarad in Hebrew)--way down.

* The Jordan Rift Valley ("Aravah" in Biblical Hebrew) extends the whole length of Israel on the east.  Today, the northern section, where the Jordan River flows, is known as the Jordan Valley; the dry southern section is known (in Modern Hebrew) as the Aravah.

This huge canyon was created by earthquakes: lots of them.  Two huge pieces of the earth's crust rub up against each other here producing measurable earthquakes almost every day or two.  A handful of these can be felt each year without instruments.  Every few years there's one big enough to do some damage.  And every few hundred years, there's one big enough to level every building in the area (like that mentioned both in Amos 1:1 and Zech. 14:5 in the time of King Uzziah).

At the deepest point of this huge canyon is the Dead Sea.  Its waters are 30% salt:  nine times the salinity of the ocean.  No fish can live in its waters, and nothing can grow along its shore.*  The desert continues right up to the edge of the water.

* With the exception of a few places where fresh water springs run down to the water, supporting a few species that can tolerate the salty soil, as at Ein Feshka near Qumran.

This is an unstable area.  There is underground heat (thermal energy), as can be seen in the hot springs on both sides of the Dead Sea.*  There are also petroleum products, as can be seen in the oil slicks that occur regularly on the surface of the water.  Big chunks of tar or asphalt occasionally come floating to the surface.  This gave the Dead Sea its Roman name:  "Lake Asphaltitis" (the Lake of Asphalt).  In the time of the New Testament, Josephus reported that there were pieces of tar floating in the water the size and shape of "headless bulls" (Wars 4.479).  These were collected by ships and sold.  The tar was used for sealing the seams of ships and in medicines.**  Hundreds of years before Abraham, Dead Sea tar was already being traded to Egypt for use in making mummies.

* As at Callirhoe, on the eastern side, where King Herod sought relief from the horrible illness that brought his death (Josephus, Antiquities 17.171).

** The use of tar to caulk boats dates back to Noah's ark (Gen. 6:14).  The "Jesus boat" discovered at the Sea of Galilee from the time of Jesus was also sealed with tar.

In the 5th cent. AD, a Christian monk named Saba went floating on one of these islands of tar for 40 days and nights during a time of fasting.  The story continues that on his way back home, he fell into a burning tar pit and was terribly burned.*  Today we don't see any more of these tar pits near the Dead Sea, but they were there in the time of Abraham.  The Bible says the area was "full of tar pits" (Gen. 14:10).**

* The life of Saba (also known as Sabas) was written by Cyril of Scythopolis.  Saba was an important figure in monastic Christianity in Israel.  The monastery founded by him in the desert outside of Bethlehem has been continually inhabited from the time of its foundation (5th cent.) until today.

** These pits may later have been covered by the shallow, southern lobe of the Dead Sea (its southernmost 15 miles/25 km), which is known to have formed in the historical past, perhaps as the result of an earthquake.  This area, when dry, may have been the Valley of Siddim where Sodom and Gomorrah were located (Gen. 14:3,8,10).  The level of the Dead Sea has fallen so dramatically in recent years that it now is in fact two separate lakes.  The southern section has been converted into salt pans which are mined by Israel and Jordan.  When the Dead Sea was still a single lake, it measured 10 miles wide by 43 miles long (17 x 76 km), about 5 times larger than the Sea of Galilee.

This is not the only change in the area since the time of Abraham.  Today, except for the water of the Dead Sea, it's a dry and barren desert.  But in Abraham's time, it was green and fertile.  Genesis says it was "like the garden of the LORD," that is, the Garden of Eden, and "like the land of Egypt," that is, the fertile Nile Valley area (Gen. 13:10).*  This is what attracted Lot when he separated his flocks from those of his uncle Abraham and moved down into the Jordan Rift Valley.

* The word in this verse sometimes translated "well watered" (mashekeh) actually means irrigated.  As in the Garden of Eden and the Nile Valley, the land here was made green through artificial irrigation.  Rain water flowing down through desert wadis (dry river beds) or emerging from springs was trapped and put to use in growing crops, as is still done today in Jericho a bit further north in the rift valley (using spring water).

Archaeology confirms that in the time just before Abraham, the settlement pattern of the land was also quite different than it is today.*  The hill country up above the Jordan Rift on the east and west, where almost all the population lives today, was sparsely settled, leaving lots of open space for Abraham to pasture his flocks.  Most of the large population centers were in the lowlands.  This includes the Jordan Rift Valley, where five large cities were discovered by archaeologists dating to this period.**  To give you an idea of the size of these cities:  the first burial ground discovered (at Bab edh-Dhra) held up to 500,000 burials!  That's one of the largest cemeteries yet found in the entire ancient Middle East.  Two others were soon discovered with nearly equal numbers of burials (at Feifa and Khanazir):  that's a total of up to 1.5 million burials!  There must have been a lot of people living here at the time.  This confirms that the land was more fertile in the past.  Otherwise it's hard to imagine how so many people could have survived here.  These five cities match the five "cities of the plain" mentioned in Genesis:  Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (Gen. 14:2).***

* The Early Bronze Age (EB III/IV).

** Known by the Arabic names Bab edh-Dhra, Numeira, Safi, Feifa, Khanazir

*** Many critical scholars are hesitant to associate the Bab edh-Dhra excavations with Genesis because they date Abraham several hundred years later (if they believe he was a historical figure at all).  But the Bible puts Abraham in Israel by 2091 BC, the same general period of time in which Bab edh-Dhra and its neighboring cities were destroyed.

Abraham first became involved with the cities of the plain after Lot moved down to Sodom (Gen. 14:2).  Four kings from the area of modern Iraq had mounted a raid against them, in which Lot and many others were taken captive.  When Abraham heard of it, he rallied a force of 318 men from his own household--slaves and sons of slaves--to pursue them.  In a daring night raid, Abraham surprised the enemy and set all the captives free (Gen. 14:15,16).

Perhaps because Abraham fought so valiantly on behalf of these people, or perhaps because of Lot's residence there, when God later intended to destroy these cities, he stopped by to notify Abraham of his plans.  Abraham's tent, at the time, was at Mamre, near Hebron up in the hill country of central Israel.  From here, there is a beautiful view east across the desert toward the Jordan Rift Valley (Gen. 18:1).  If you walk a short distance east, a spectacular view opens up looking down into the canyon of the Jordan.

Abraham's tent, like the Bedouin tents of today, would be set up with its long sides facing east and west.  In warm weather, the whole eastern side of the tent was opened to catch the rays of the sun in the morning, and to keep it cool in the hot afternoon.  As Abraham sat there in the shade of the tent, looking out the open east side--in the direction of Sodom--he saw three men standing in the hot sunlight (Gen. 18:2).  This was odd; the heat of the day wasn't the usual time to travel.  This may have awakened Abraham's compassion for them and, at least in part, prompted his especially generous hospitality.  But then, generous hospitality is an important part of nomadic life in the desert even today.

In spite of the fact that there were three men, Abraham addresses himself to only one of them ("my lord," adonai in Hebrew; 18:3).*  One of the men, by his appearance or manner, was clearly in authority over the other two.  Abraham invited them to rest a while, offering a little bread and water (18:4,5).  But in the end he prepared a feast:  a freshly butchered calf, fresh bread and cheese (curds), and milk (18:8).

* Or, "my Lord" as used of God.  Did Abraham already realize the identity of his guest?

While they were eating, the man that Abraham had first spoken to prophesied that Sarah would have a son (18:10).  Here the visitor is first identified as the LORD (YHWH in Hebrew)--God himself appearing to Abraham as a man (18:13).*  How can God appear as a man, when the Bible clearly teaches that no man can see God and live (Ex. 33:20)?  This is an appearance of what elsewhere the Bible calls the Angel of the LORD, who is YHWH himself.  How can a messenger from God be God?  That's the question, isn't it?  And that's exactly why Christianity teaches not only that God has revealed himself, but that he actually exists, in more than one "individual reality."**  Unlike ourselves, God exists in more than one way at a time.  He exists in heaven as the ruler of the universe, beyond time and space (the Father), but he has another simultaneous way of existing (the Son), that can come down to earth and speak to us in the appearance of a man.

* YHWH is the personal name of God, often referred to as the Tetragrammaton (the "four letters").  It is spelled without vowels because no one is sure exactly how it was pronounced.  Unlike all the other names of God, which are titles or descriptions, this is his proper name, equivalent, for example, to the proper name of his host:  "Abraham."

** Or "way of existing" (hypostasis in Greek).  This Greek word, used by the early Church, is more adequate than its Latin equivalent "persona" at least in a modern context, where the Latin term (the meaning of which is similar to the English word "persona") is often misleadingly translated "person."  This gives people the impression that God is three separate beings, which is incorrect.  God is one being with three simultaneous "ways of existing."

After they finished their meal, the men began to walk east in the direction of that beautiful view over the Jordan Valley and Sodom, with Abraham walking along to see them off (18:16).  Here the man who was God revealed to Abraham his plan to destroy the cities (18:20,21).  Once again, Abraham tried to deliver them, this time by interceding with God:  What if there are 50 righteous people in the city, won't you spare it for them (18:24)?  Yes, God said, he would (18:26).  But since that didn't deter him in his plan, Abraham went on to bargain with God:  what if there are 40 righteous people?  or twenty?  or even ten?  After agreeing to ten, God walked on, the interview was over; the situation didn't look good for Sodom.

Until this point, the Bible has given no indication of what made Sodom and Gomorrah so wicked.  But we soon find out when the two angelic companions of God enter Sodom (Gen. 19:1).  Here they meet Lot, sitting in the gate of the city.*  Like his uncle Abraham, Lot shows great hospitality to the two visitors, not only inviting them to his home, but even insisting that they stay with him.  Here he prepares a feast for them, just as his uncle had done (19:3).

* This tells us that Sodom had city walls, which matches the discoveries of the archaeologists, who found city walls at Bab edh-Dhra (Sodom).

But the other residents of the city, far from showing kindly hospitality, gather around Lot's house with the intention of "getting to know" Lot's visitors (from the Hebrew root yadah, "to know"; 19:5)--but not in a polite, social way, rather a carnal, wicked way.*  This was not just a few troublemakers:  it was all the men of the city, from one side of it to the other (19:3,4)!  Now we know what is so horribly wrong with the city, and why God came to destroy it.

* "To know" occasionally functions in Hebrew as a euphemism for sexual relations, in this case homosexuality.

The situation soon became dangerous, and the angels intervene, striking the men of the city with blindness (19:11).  Then they reveal to Lot their mission to destroy the city (19:13).  Early the next morning, when he delayed, they grabbed Lot, his wife, and his daughters by their hands and brought them out of the city (19:16).  The final verb of this verse is interesting:  it means literally "caused them to alight" (yanichuhu), like a bird.  In other words, the angels didn't walk them out of the city--they flew them out!

Their escape from Sodom is a picture of the catching up of the believers when Messiah returns for judgment (1 Thess. 4:17).  It may also describe how this catching up will take place:  an angel will grab hold of one of your hands, and up you go!

From there, Lot and his family had to run for it, after being warned by the angels, 'Don't look back' (19:17).  The angels held off destroying the city until mid-morning, when Lot reached Zoar (19:23).*

* One of the five cities, previously known as Bela.  As Jesus observed:  "On the day that Lot went out from Sodom...." (Luke 17:29).

The Bible describes the catastrophe in a somewhat unusual way:  "And the LORD [YHWH] rained on Sodom and on Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD [YHWH] out of heaven" (19:24).  In other words, the Lord (YHWH #1) rained fire and sulfur from the Lord (YHWH #2) in heaven.  This is one of several places in the Bible where God is mentioned in more than one "way of existing," yet both are given the same proper name:  YHWH.  God, in the reality in which he is able to appear on earth, brought judgment from that other, different reality of himself that exists in the heavens.  This is a foreshadowing of what will happen at the return of Jesus, when he will send a fiery destruction on the earth from the Father God in heaven.*

* "It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed" (Luke 17:30).

It's not hard to imagine how the city was destroyed.  In that highly unstable area with all those petroleum products around, all it would take is a match to blow up the whole place (19:25).  Some have suggested a volcanic eruption as the cause of the fire and sulfur coming out of the sky.  But it seems much more likely, as others have suggested, that an earthquake set off a petroleum explosion, perhaps after releasing gas into the air.  This would also account for fire and bits of sulfur raining down out of the sky.*  The people would have been burned by the fire or choked by the fumes.

* Asphalt contains a high percentage of sulfur.

This matches the evidence found in the excavations:  An earthquake helped destroy the cities.  But there was also abundant evidence of burning, including charred human bones.  This burning was found not only in the city, but also in the cemetery, which would not be the case if the fire was the result of war or accident.  There was also evidence of confusion when the city was destroyed:  Some blocked their doorways before trying to escape, others did not.  But no one ever came back to open those doorways.  Others were found dead inside the cities without any evidence of burning.

The only other Biblical description of what happened is in Genesis 19:28.  Here Abraham went out to the same place where he stood bargaining with God--with its beautiful view down over the Rift Valley--and saw the whole area putting out thick smoke like the smoke of a furnace.  This also fits with the thick smoke of a petroleum disaster, as when the oilfields of Kuwait burned after the Gulf War.*

* Abraham's view down over the smoking remains of Sodom and Gomorrah is a foreshadowing of eternal judgment in a "furnace" of eternal burning (Gehenna; Matt. 6:30, 13:42,50; Luke 12:28; Rev. 9:2).

There's just one more detail to consider: Lot's wife.  Although most Bibles say she became a "pillar" of salt, the word used here (netziv in Hebrew) elsewhere refers to a look-out "station" or an officer (who is "stationed" over others).  The idea is that because she couldn't keep herself from looking back, she was "stationed" in death, as a "watchman of salt," looking over that place of desolation.  This is most likely a poetic allusion to the pillars of salt that can sometimes be seen standing in the area.  But whether her transformation into a "watchman of salt" was the result of a supernatural act of God, an unusual by-product of the disaster,* or simply refers to her remains being "stationed" there in the salty soil, the Bible does not specify, saying only, "...and she became a watchman of salt" (19:26).

* Like the bodies encased in ash in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius at Pompeii, she could have been buried in salt as a result of the explosion or earthquake.

What happened to her, Jesus said, is a warning to us all:  "Remember Lot's wife" (Luke 17:32).  This is mentioned in one of Jesus' prophecies of his return, in which he describes the catching away of the Church:  "On that day, let not the one who is on the housetop and whose goods are in the house go down to take them away; and likewise let not the one who is in the field turn back" (Luke 17:31).  His message?  We must be ready to go at a moment's notice.  We must remain unattached to the things of this life.  Otherwise, when the time comes, we may be tempted to turn back.  Remember Lot's wife!

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Copyright © 2000 by Jeffrey J. Harrison.  All rights reserved.
Satellite photography courtesy of NASA. Mapwork and other photos by the author.  Please do not copy without permission.
For permission to reproduce this article, contact Jeff@totheends.com