Arguments Against Locating Sodom at Tall el-Hammam

Todd Bolen responds to "Where is Sodom"

This piece was originally published by professor Todd Bolen on the BiblePlaces blog. Bolen comments on Steven Collins’s BAR article suggesting that Biblical authors located Sodom at the site of Tall el-Hammam. We invite our readers to continue the discussion in our comments section below.
All material republished with the permission of Todd Bolen.


 

The proposal that Sodom has been found on the northeastern side of the Dead Sea has been around for a decade or so, but with the publication of an article by Steven Collins this month it will receive the widest hearing to date. I thought it might be helpful for readers of Biblical Archaeology Review to know where to go for another perspective.

The proposal that Tall el-Hammam is Sodom fails on at least two counts, and these are helpfully summarized by two experts in their respective subjects.

Geography Fail: Bill Schlegel, professor in Israel for 25 years and author of the Satellite Bible Atlas, explains why the biblical text does not fit the geography of Tall el-Hammam.

Chronology Fail: Eugene Merrill, Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, shows in a recent Artifax article that for Tall el-Hammam to be Sodom one must deny all of the biblical dates before the time of the judges.

I’ve written about the issue several times as well:

Excavator Finds Evidence of Destruction at “Sodom” (Dec 2011)

Video: Search for Sodom and Gomorrah (Aug 2009)

Tall el-Hammam: Sodom, Abel Shittim, Abila, or Livias? (Jan 2009)

Sodom Identified? (May 2006)

One final point: the excavator of Tall el-Hammam insists that by identifying the site as Sodom he is supporting the historicity of the Bible. In fact, if his theory is true, we cannot trust the Bible for accurate details about times and places. Tall el-Hammam is certainly a significant site, but Sodom is surely to be found elsewhere.

Northern end of the Dead Sea. Photo from Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, volume 4.

Posted in Biblical Archaeology Sites.

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18 Responses

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  1. Eve says

    The problem is dating MB2 based upon Egyptian dates which are known to be 200 years off. MB2 in the Levant was from 1950-1800 BC according to my new Egyptian chronology in sync with the Bible (free at website). Ussher placed the separation of Abram and Lot in 1918 BC, and Sodom’s destruction twenty years later, so there is no dating difficulty for Tell-Hammam being Sodom.

  2. Steven says

    Mr. Bolen’s take on the location of Sodom is simply erroneous. His views on the geography of Sodom simply won’t hold water (true of anyone who holds the southern view). His hyper-literalist approach to the patriarchal chronology simply doesn’t fit the realities of Levantine archaeology. The evidence for Tall el-Hammam as Sodom is simply overwhelming. For the minute details I suggest reading the upcoming book by Latayne Scott and me, Discovering the City of Sodom (Simon & Schuster/Howard), releasing in early April.

  3. Steven says

    Just another quick note…
    Bolen’s comment that the northern Sodom view “has been around for a decade or so” (when I started writing about it) is misleading. In fact, it was the dominant viewpoint of the 19th century explorer-scholars of the southern Levant—men like Tristram, Conder, Merrill, Thomson, and Wilson. It was Albright and Wright in the 20th century who went south by completely ignoring Gen 13:1-12.

  4. Steven says

    Necessary background on Bolen’s views of biblical chronology…
    Bolen has not a single valid geographical point against the ID of Tall el-Hammam as Sodom. His (and others’) rejection of it is based on the chronology of Hammam’s destruction which, he claims, is too late for the career of Abraham. One must, however, understand Bolen’s views on patriarchal chronology. First, he believes the creation of the world happened about 4000 BC, and that the birth of Abraham was 2166 BC. His literal base-10 configuration of the chronology has Abraham still going strong during the career of Jacob, and Isaac still going strong during the life of Joseph. In his view, Abraham’s 175 years are literal, and the others as well. This is all configured based on a 1446 date for the Exodus following a 430-year Israelite sojourn in Egypt, both of which are taken from the 10th century AD Masoretic Text (which contains the only evidence for such values). Bolen rejects both a middle (14th century BC) and late (13th century BC) date for the Exodus as heretical thinking. He rejects any idea that the biblical lifespan numbers could be base-6 or formulaic/honorific or symbolic in any way. He will not accept any site as Sodom that does not fit into his chronology. Which is why I find it odd that he would even consider any of the southern sites, seeing that they pre-date his Abraham by hundreds of years (such as Bab edh-Dhra, destroyed 2350 BC; and Numeira, destroyed 2600 BC). All the southern sites are much too early for a connection with Abraham, but Bolen is willing to stretch the archaeology far beyond the breaking point to accommodate his ideas. Those who take a later date for the Exodus (middle or late date) have no problem with the date of Hammam’s destruction being linked to Sodom. So, readers just need to know what kind of chronological view leads to Bolen’s rejection of Hammam as Sodom.

  5. Jim says

    Read the arguments and not surprised by the impasse. Maybe, the heavens have just bowled you both a googly. This year it was proved by Ackermann et al that much of the cosmic ray flux comes from supernovae; 5 years previously Damon et al showed that the hard gamma ray pulse from a supernova was sufficient to increment C-14 count in trees by ~6% after ingestion over a 3 yr period. This means that C-14 gets boosted twice every hundred years on average, and so most furniture and structural timber excavated is likely to have incorporated at least one burst of extra radiocarbon in its lifetime. Ditto for people. As ceramic typology gives relative dates, and needs to be tied to associated radiocarbon or dendrochronological items for an absolute age determination, surel;y there’s a fair chance that the date-range you assign to MB2 could be too young.

  6. Todd says

    Steven Collins frequently misrepresents opposing views and his comments above are no exception. Readers may follow the links above to read what I and others have written and to come to their own conclusions.

  7. Jim says

    Sorry – the the seciond reference date came out wrong: here’s the actual reference:-
    Figure 3 from Damon et al’s paper “ RADIOCARBON PRODUCTION BY THE GAMMA-RAY COMPONENT OF SUPERNOVA EXPLOSIONS”, Radiocarbon 37 (1995) 599-604, shows the measured increase in 14C in a sequoia two years after the supernova SN1006 was observed in the sky in AD1006. The two year pulse-lag indicates the time between the actual explosion and the creation of the gamma ray pulse from ricochetting protons caught between expanding shockwaves. That galactic supernova was seen – most wouldn’t have been (a) because of optical frequency blocking (nebular dust etc) and (b) nobody was watching the skies at that time.

    The good news is that the same pulse that spawned the 14C must also have incremented the amount of measurable 13C in the same wood or other organic residue: if there is an anomalous Δ13C pulse for a date sample, then it probably means that there has been a cosmic ray flux at that time, assuming no other (chemical) processes have caused increased 13C concentration. Unless I’m missing something a subsequent 14C age estimate should then be treated with caution. How sure are you of the start and cut-off dates for MB2 in the Levant?

  8. Steven says

    I do not believe that I have misrepresented Mr. Bolen’s views on biblical chronology. As far as I can tell, he holds to Bishop Ussher’s chronology or something very close to it. This means a creation of the world ca. 4000 BC, a Noah’s flood ca. 2500 BC, and Abraham’s birth ca. 2166 BC. If he holds dates substantially different from these, then I stand corrected. The old, traditional chronology for the patriarchs (with Abram’s birth ca. 2166) is that of Ussher. This is the date Bolen accepts as far as I can determine.
    As for the MB2 dates in the Levant, they are tied to Egyptian chronology via ceramics. As K.A. Kitchen has clearly demonstrated (On the Reliability of the Old Testament), the patriarchs belong between 1900 and 1540 BC based on historical synchronisms and elements of cultural specificity. Placing Abraham in the Intermediate Bronze Age 2 (2200-2000 BCE) is simply not possible for a host of reasons, from cultural affinities to climatological regimes. According to Genesis, the time of Abraham was a time of relative prosperity and powerful cities. Neither of these was a reality in Cisjordan Canaan during either IB1 or IB2.
    As for the C14 dating, most calibrated dates still are not as accurate as ceramic assemblages for the most part. However, the technology is advancing.

  9. Steven says

    I have re-read Mr. Schlegel’s attempt to refute my position on Sodom’s location (his comments are on Bolen’s blog with link given above). I strongly encourage everyone to read it, then compare what he says with the Hebrew text itself. He suggests that Gen 13 doesn’t require that Sodom be on the Kikkar of the Jordan. This is sheer nonsense. Sodom and sister cities are called “the Cities of the Kikkar,” and the Kikkar is “the Kikkar of the Jordan.” Period. Sodom was on the Kikkar (Disk) of the Jordan, the alluvial plain of the Jordan north of the Dead Sea, and that entire area was visible from Bethe/Ai located WNW of Jericho—all according to Gen 13:1-12. Any suggestion of a southern Sodom remains a distortion of the text, as it always has been. I encourage readers to assess the geography of Gen 13 on their own, then make up their own minds.

  10. Todd says

    Steven Collins frequently misrepresents opposing views and his comments above are no exception. He has never heard me say anything about the date of creation, the flood, or Ussher’s chronology; he has invented these in an effort to discredit what I’ve written. Readers may follow the links above to read what I and others have written and to come to their own conclusions.

  11. Steven says

    I think readers deserve to understand Bolen’s views on biblical chronology simply because they color his interpretation of biblical and archaeological data. One’s views on biblical chronology are important in the discussion. I would like to hear from him exactly how I have misinterpreted his vews on biblical chronology. To the degree that I have misrepresented his views, I will stand corrected.

  12. James says

    It’s obvious there won’t be any agreement on the dating at this point – so shouldn’t some other approach be used to decide the issue? The reports on Tall-el-Hammam pointed to extensive and unusual MB2 destruction. As the Genesis account of the Sodom destruction mentioned the removal of 4 cities, wouldn’t a determination of the perimeter of the MB2 destruction combined with the ascertaining of 4 significant cities within that boundary showing an ash layer of MB2 damage be fairly conclusive evidence that these were the Biblical Cities of the Plain? I’m guessing that with modern core-drilling equipment it shouldn’t be very difficult to obtain that kind of information, assuming that there is some clue to where the cities are. Determining the perimeter shouldn’t be too difficult. I apologize if it has already been done.

  13. Douglas says

    Eve, only rogue ANE-enthusiasts who want to make quick-and-easy synchronizations between biblical history and ANE history subscribe to the notion that “Egyptian dates . . . are known to be 200 years off.” This simply is choosing to live in ignorance and support one’s presuppositions, and it displays a naivete that draws sighs of disbelief from ANE scholars and biblical scholars who’ve poured their lives into this field. For beginners, you cannot begin MB IIA in 1950. It simply does not work, if for no other reason than the duckbill axe (Beni Hasan) from Year 6 of Sesostris II, which tool/weapon is diagnostic for MB IIA and requires this period to be in place by 1881/80, at the latest. Moreover, my forthcoming book on Israel in Egypt, which obviously has a much more precise Egyptian chronology than you are offering, is going to demonstrate powerfully and conclusively that Jacob came to Egypt in 1876 (Year 2 or 3 of Sesostris III), that Joseph served under Sesostris III, and that Joseph’s son Manasseh was running an industry in the environs of Egypt during the reign of Amenemhet III, among other things. Whichever guru you are following–whether it be Ussher, Rohl, Bimson, or whomever, you would be much better off to burn those books and start from scratch. Stick will studying scholars who have formally studied Egyptology, ANE history, and biblical history with much greater and broader depth (and not just 1 or two of the above).

  14. Douglas says

    Eve, I forgot to mention that you cannot possibly end MB II in 1800. You obviously have not studied the archaeology and history of Egypt very well. The 12th Dynasty does not end until ca. 1801, and then you have a period of 13th-Dynasty kings who ruled while the MK persisted, followed by a number who ruled after its collapse, about 23 in total. Then you have Hyksos rule, which lasted anywhere from 108-148 years, depending on your preferred ancient sources. This takes MB II to 1550, unless you’re going to say that the Hyksos period equals MB III, in which case MB II ends in ca. 1650. Only in 1550 does LB I begin. Therefore, there is no way possible to have Lot’s separation with Abram in 1918. Egyptian history is not “off by 200 years”; rather, historical revisionism is off by 200 problems.

  15. Steven says

    Comment to Douglas…
    Actually the end of MB2 (I don’t like anything about an MB3; too ephemeral) has to be adjusted to the date (a bit uncertain) when Ahmosis drove the Hyksos military from Egypt. As I recall, that happened around year 19 of his reign. So, the end of the Hyksos Period could be as late as 1540 or 1530 BCE. But I agree, the band of uncertainty in the Egyptian chronology is only about 30-50 years, not anything like Rohl suggests. His views don’t synch culturally or in any other way with either biblical or ANE history. Tall el-Hammam has some Hyksos affinities (such as Tell el-Yahudieh ware and a few scarabs), but ceramically our terminal date is looking like it’s earlier and not later, between 1750 and 1700 BCE. All the MB2 cities in the Kikkar were destroyed at the same time because they share the same ceramic horizon.

  16. ULRICH says

    Comment to Dr. Collins…
    I’ve found nothing about the ash layer at Tall el-Hammam (chemical composition). Since the time of destruction you dated around 1650 BCE (in the book), it is close to the Thera eruption, dated scientifically at 1628 BCE. Moreover, the ash of the Thera event is found only eastwards of Santorini Isle. The Thera eruption is thought was about 5 times that of Krakatoa and an instantaneous explosion. It’s possible that a great incandescent volcanic mass was ejected obliquely into the stratosphere and landed in the east Jordan kikkar. I cannot imagine that a meteorite impact would leave such an amount of ash.
    Is an ash analysis of Tall el-Hammam and its comparison with Thera ash under way?

  17. dean says

    Everyone has an opinion, and only one of your opinions can be correct. What Collins has found is something that was destroyed by intense heat, something the ancient world could not have produced. I am no scientist, but I doubt a volcano could have caused the destruction Collins has found at Tall El-Hammam. Too sudden, almost instant death. How does the Pompeii destruction compare? Lots of ash, but bodies well preserved. In any case, for me, it does not matter whether Sodom is found or not. There is copious evidence for the historicity of the rest of the Biblical account, and no archeological find has ever contradicted the Bible. Therefore, I think it best to ponder the meaning of Genesis 13 for today.

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