We’re all familiar with the biblical story about how God rained down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, cities known for their cruel treatment of visitors.
The story is told in Genesis 19. The cities were known for their wickedness, according to the story, so God sent two angels into the city to warn Abraham’s nephew Lot to take his family and get out of town before things heated up.
Lot is portrayed as a respected man in the city, since he was sitting at the gate where the elders gather when the strangers arrived. Thinking they were ordinary travelers, Lot invited the angels to lodge at his home, offering the kind of compassionate hospitality that his uncle Abraham had shown them in the previous chapter.
Then, in a story replete with hyperbole, all the men of the city surrounded Lot’s house: “both young and old, all the people to the last man.” They demanded that Lot turn over his guests so they could shame and disrespect the strangers by raping them – an ancient custom that was all about brutality and had nothing to do with homosexuality.
When Lot refused, the angels opened the door and blinded the men of the city before hustling Lot, his daughters, and his wife out of town.
Then, BOOM. Fire and brimstone and cities lying in total ruin.
Why mention this? Last November, archaeologists and scientists working at Tel el-Hammam in Jordan presented findings to the American Schools of Oriental Research meeting in Denver. The reports described evidence of an astrophysical event that may underlie the traditions preserved in the story of Sodom’s destruction.
Tel el-Hammam, which some (but not all) archaeologists identify as ancient Sodom, was a major city in the ancient world, rivaling Jericho for its antiquity and boasting massive walls, gates, and towers.
The city was occupied without interruption for thousands of years and was a major city state during the Middle Bronze Age – the general time period when Abraham would have been around. Lead archaeologist Stephen Collins says the walls had been expanded by then to as much as 100 feet wide and 50 feet tall.
That was a sizeable city – until it wasn’t. The city was suddenly and totally destroyed around 1650 BCE, and not just that city, but everything around it for mile and miles. The destruction was so total that the area remained deserted for the next 600-700 years.
A roughly circular area surrounding Tel el-Hamman, about 15 miles across, is just north and east of the Dead Sea. It was known as the “Kikkar” or the “Middle Ghor,” and during the Early and Middle Bronze Ages it was a particularly fertile and well-watered area due to natural springs, dependable rainfall, and seasonal flooding by the Jordan River, which brought new nutrients as well as water.
We recall that when Abraham and Lot’s flocks became crowded, Lot had chosen to move to that place because “the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD” (Gen. 13:10).
After 1650, the land became sterile, unable to grow any crops.
The area’s destruction appears to have been caused by a meteor that exploded in the air, causing a massive shock wave that flattened everything beneath it, melted rocks together, turned some pottery into glass, and kicked up so much water and vapor from the Dead Sea that the region was showered with enough salt to make the ground six percent saline – way too much for wheat or barley to germinate. Nearly 200 square miles of arable land because useless and was abandoned for centuries.
Something similar happened in Tungusku, Siberia, back in 1908, and as recently as 2013 over Chelyabinsk, in southwestern Russia.
Scientists working with the archaeologists examined soil samples and discovered several similarities to the Tungusku and Chelyabinsk events. These included high platinum content, a high incidence of magnetic spherules, high levels of sulfates and salts, and “scoria-like objects” of melted silica.
According to an article at phys.org, researchers concluded that the airburst had the power of a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead when it exploded in the air about two-thirds of a mile northwest of the Dead Sea.
The shock wave would have had immense heat, kicking up all kinds of material from the ground, which would then fall (some of it flaming?) back to earth.
That’s a lot of fire and brimstone – and as good an explanation as any for the tradition that arose concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The biblical account gives the event a theological interpretation that suggests the meteor in question was a blazing fastball thrown by God. Whatever the cause, it took only one strike to get a big-time out.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.