Steven Collins responds to a letter by Bill Schlegel
In the article “Where Is Sodom?” in the March/April 2013 issue of BAR, archaeologist Steven Collins combines clues from Biblical geography with archaeological evidence from the site of Tall el-Hammam in Jordan to suggest that the author of Genesis 13 located Sodom in a fertile area northeast of the Dead Sea. However, not all agree with Collins’s assessment. In the July/August 2013 issue, Collins responded to reader Shirley S. Reed’s question on the location of Zoar. Below, read Bill Schlegel’s commentary on the location of Zoar along with Steven Collins’s response.
Steve Collins’s interpretation of the location of Zoar* on the Madaba Map is faulty. The Zered River, which drains into the southeastern part of the Dead Sea is depicted and clearly labeled on the Madaba Map. Zoar is located south of the mouth of the Zered River. The Madaba Map is not depicting only the “northern half” of the Dead Sea, as Collins asserts. Nor is the Lisan (Tongue) missing from the map because of “low water levels.” Perhaps exactly the opposite is true—the Madaba Map depicts no Lisan because of high water levels.
Collins’s attempt to move Zoar from near the mouth of the Zered to near the mouth of the Arnon is faulty as well (by the way, the Arnon River is depicted on the Madaba Map, further north). He cites Deuteronomy 2:4-5, 9, 34:1-3 and Joshua 13:8-28 as evidence that because Israel was not to displace Moab or Edom, Zoar can’t be as far south as the mouth of the Zered. Collins fails to realize that the territory of Moab forbidden to Israel was in the heights above the Rift Valley. The Rift Valley and the Dead Sea are distinct regions which were not forbidden to Israel “as far as Zoar.”
Moving Zoar to the mouth of the Arnon doesn’t improve Collins’s case for Sodom anyway. From the Arnon mouth to Tall-Hammam, where he wants to place Sodom, is still over 40 miles.
The best location for Zoar is on the southeast side of the Dead Sea.
Other than Israel, no country has as many Biblical sites and associations as Jordan: Mount Nebo, from where Moses gazed at the Promised Land; Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John baptized Jesus; Lot’s Cave, where Lot and his daughters sought refuge after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and many more. Travel with us on our journey into the past in our free eBook Exploring Jordan.
With all due respect, Mr. Schlegel’s take on the location of Zoar is a classic case of “seeing what one wants to see” and “believing what one wants to believe” in spite of the facts. I will address his points vis-à-vis my location of Zoar [at/near the confluence of the Arnon River (Wadi Mujib) with the Dead Sea] in the order of his objections.
His first protestation has to do with the sixth-century C.E. Madaba Map. I’ve studied this map in detail for many years. Most recently, in shooting a documentary for National Geographic, the entire floor of the Byzantine church which contains the mosaic map was cleared and cleaned so that I could personally examine it in detail (on my hands and knees!). One of the first things I noticed was that some of the traditional ‘readings’ and ‘assignments’ of certain places on the map were obviously in error, and based on interpretations of the geography loaded with assumptions that are likely false. The locations on the map noted by Schlegel are among them.
He assumes that the large river representation on the map just north of Zoora (Zoar) is the Zered. However, the letters preserved on the map, although usually read “-ARED” are actually “-AREA.” There is no delta. But even if it was “Zared,” the placement of the Zered River on any map is made based on one’s predisposition about Zoar, and not on any objective information about the Zered River’s location. If one placed Zoar on the Arnon/Wadi Mujib, then, it could be labeled “Zared!”
So, what’s actually represented on the Madaba Map? It’s an absolute fact that the Madaba Map features only the deep north basin of the Dead Sea. This is detailed quite nicely in Neev and Emery’s geological work The Destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah and Jericho1 and numerous other geological resources. Based on numerous data-sets dealing with ancient Dead Sea levels, it’s clear that during the Roman and Byzantine Period the level of the Dead Sea was even lower than today—about -440m. As Neev and Emery point out, at the time when the Madaba Map was made there was no shallow south basin, thus no Lisan Peninsula. Zoar was then a deep-water port on the Bay of Mazra’a at the south end of the north basin. Also, there was a Roman road going east/west over the Lisan (not possible when the south basin is filled). Today, at the present historic low-level, you can easily see Roman and Byzantine ruins along the eastern shoreline of the Dead Sea, right next to the water!
Mr. Schlegel’s suggestion that “Perhaps exactly the opposite is true—the Madaba Map depicts no Lisan because of high water levels” is made in abject ignorance of the facts. As Neev and Emery state: “As Zoar of the first century A.D. was a seaport, it had to be on the shore and must have been north of [the paved Roman road traversing the Lisan] or near the head of the Bay of Mazra’a [at the south end of the north basin]. The absence of any geographic indication for the [Lisan] peninsula’s existence on the Madaba Map leads to a similar conclusion. Such an outstanding and picturesque tongue-like shore would not have been overlooked by the artist-cartographer of that map.” They further state that “Postures of two cargo vessels portrayed on the Madaba Map imply that the main traffic was between Zoar, port at the southeast corner of the north basin, and the north coast as close as possible to Jericho, the gate to Judea. The Bay of Mazra’a was always the main, if not the only, natural deepwater haven … If Zoar were at Es-Safi, it never could have functioned as an efficient harbor.”
Given that the Madaba Map shows only the deep north basin, the large ‘river’ representation to the north of Zoar is none other than the Wadi Mujib (Biblical Arnon River/Gorge). It’s exactly where it’s supposed to be, including being virtually due east of Hebron on the map! There are just two major wadis emptying into the north Dead Sea basin: the Wadi Mujib and the Wadi Zarqa-Ma’in farther north. Thus, the north (and correctly smaller) ‘river’ represented is the Wadi Zarqa. If this is not the case, then the Madaba Map would have to be declared a geographical distortion unusable for cartographic purposes.
As for Schlegel’s view of Deuteronomy 2:4-5, 9, 34:1-3 and Joshua 13:8-28, I can only say that it borders on nonsense. His statement that I fail “to realize that the territory of Moab forbidden to Israel was in the heights above the Rift Valley,” and that the “Rift Valley and the Dead Sea are distinct regions, which were not forbidden, to Israel ‘as far as Zoar’” is just wishful thinking. The territories of Moab and Edom (and the Ammon, for that matter) followed their wadi/river borders right into the Rift Valley. Indeed, in the time of Moses, even the valley floor northeast of the Dead Sea was called the Plains of Moab!
That the Reuben/Gad tribal allotment stretched from “the Kikkar of the Valley of Jericho, City of Palms, as far as Zoar” is clearly marking out its south border at the Arnon River/Gorge, the natural and perpetual border between the Transjordan Israelites and Moabites. The Roman/Byzantine Zoar is in the same vicinity, just south of where the Wadi Mujib/Arnon empties into the Dead Sea. The ‘port’ of Zoar was likely moved to the Bay of Mazra’a to avoid the oft’-catastrophic flash floods disgorging from the Wadi Mujib during seasonal rains. That “the sound of [Moab’s] cry rises from Heshbon to Elealeh and Jahaz, from Zoar as far as Horonaim and Eglath Shelishiyah…” (Jer 48:34) indicates, in this sorth-to-south sequence, that Zoar is in the middle of the (then) Moabite territory (in a time when the northern border of Moab had moved north to include Heshbon).
As for the distance from Tall el-Hammam to Zoar at the confluence of the Arnon with the Dead Sea—it is 27 miles, not “over 40 miles” as Schlegel states. We also know that the Dead Sea level in the time of Abraham (MB2) was approximately the historic low, as today. This provided a walkable shelf-like shoreline as a relatively easy route between the two. Additionally, the statement of Genesis 19:23 that “the sun had risen over the land when Lot came to Zoar” is better understood as “the sun had gone forth over the land, and Lot came to Zoar;” that is, the sun had completed its daily course and was in the process of setting in the west by the time Lot reached Zoar. Thus, Lot had from dawn to dusk to travel from Sodom (Tall el-Hammam) to Zoar.
In conclusion, the best location for Zoar is not on the southeast corner of the Dead Sea’s shallow (sometimes nonexistent) south basin, but on the southeast corner of the deep north basin, where, in fact, the Madaba Map places Byzantine Zoar.2
Bill Schlegel is associate professor of Bible at The Master’s College, Israel Bible Extension (IBEX), where he teaches Biblical history, geography and Hebrew. He is author of the Satellite Bible Atlas
Steven Collins is director of the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project and dean of the College of Archaeology and Biblical History at Trinity Southwest University in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he also serves as curator of its ancient Near East collections.
*Q&C: Geographically Puzzled. Steven Collins response to Shirley S. Reed. BAR July/Aug 2013, p. 10-11.
1. David Neev and K.O. Emery The Destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jericho: Geological, Climatological, and Archaeological Background, Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1995; pp. 131-138.
2. For further reading and documentation, I highly recommend my detailed article answering Mr. Schlegel at tallelhammam.com under “Related Publications.”
A version of this post first appeared in Bible History Daily in 2013.
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In this article it states that, “We also know that the Dead Sea level in the time of Abraham (MB2) was approximately the historic low, as today.”, but how is that possible when Josephus, when speaking of the dead sea states, “And when they were come over against Sodom, they pitched their camp at the vale called the Slimepits: for at that time there were pits in that place: but now, upon the destruction of the city of Sodom, that vale became the Lake Asphaltites” a.k.a. The Dead Sea?
Meaning the Dead Sea wasn’t in existence during the time of Sodom and it came into existence as a result of Sodom’s destruction.
Is this taken into account, or am I misunderstanding? Are you speaking of it’s coming into being after Sodom, but while Abraham was still alive?
If sodom is not historic why look for it? Jesus thought it was historic. I will go with Him on that. Same for Noah and the ark.