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The story of Sodom (and Gomorrah) is a famous one. But it could be that the story is on one of aetiology – a post hoc story to explain the origins of something. Aetiology is a really interesting idea that pops up an awful lot in the context of the Bible. As Wikipedia details:

Sodom and Gomorrah (/ˈsɒdəm …ɡəˈmɒrə/) were two legendary biblical cities destroyed by God for their wickedness.[1] Their story parallels the Genesis flood narrative in its theme of God’s anger provoked by sin (see the Book of Genesis, chapter 19, verses 1-28).[2] They are mentioned frequently in the prophets and the New Testament as symbols of human wickedness and divine retribution, and the Quran also contains a version of the story about the two cities.[3] The legend of their destruction may have originated as an attempt to explain the remains of 3rd millennium Bronze Age cities in the region.[1]

Sodom and Gomorrah are two of the five “cities of the plain” referred in Genesis 13:12 and 19:29 subject to Chedorlaomer of Elam, which rebel against him. At the Battle of Siddim Chedorlaomer defeats them and takes many captives, including Lot, the nephew of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham. Abraham gathers his men, rescues Lot, and frees the cities.Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction in the background of Lucas van Leyden‘s Lot and his Daughters (1520)

God sends two angels to destroy Sodom. Lot welcomes them into his home, but all the men of the town surround the house and demand that he surrender the visitors that they may “know” them. Lot offers the mob his virgin daughters to “do to them as you please”, but they refuse and threaten to do worse to Lot. The angels strike the crowd blind.

The angels tell Lot “…because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.”[8] The next morning, because Lot had lingered, the angels seized Lot, Lot’s wife, and his two daughters and take them out of the city and tell him to flee to the hills. Lot says that the hills are too far away and asks to go to Zoar instead. Then God rained sulfur and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.[9] Lot, together with his two daughters, are saved but his wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt.[10]

So that gives you a reminder of the story.

Just recently, a research team from East Carolina University has been working at Tall el-Hammam, located in the Jordan Valley northeast of the Dead Sea since 2005. They suggest that the destruction of Sodom could be explained by a meteorite exploding:

Archaeological excavation of the site began in 2005, Mitra said, and researchers have been particularly interested in a citywide 1.5-meter-thick destruction layer of carbon and ash. The layer, which dates to about 1650 B.C.E. (about 3,600 years ago), contains shocked quartz, melted pottery and mudbricks, diamond-like carbon, soot, remnants of melted plaster, and melted minerals including platinum, iridium, nickel, gold, silver, zircon, chromite and quartz.

“They found all this evidence of high-temperature burning throughout the entire site,” Mitra said. “And the technology didn’t exist at that time, in the Middle Bronze Age, for people to be able to generate fires of that kind of temperature.”

The site includes a massive palace complex with thick walls and a monumental gateway, much of which was destroyed.

The researchers developed a hypothesis that there had been a meteorite impact or bolide — a meteor that explodes in the atmosphere. The researchers compared the airburst to a 1908 explosion over Tunguska, Russia, where a 50-meter-wide bolide detonated, generating 1,000 times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Certainly an interesting theory and one that is certainly more plausible as an explanation for the story than the biblical account! It continues, with Dr Sid Mitra stating:

“So we analyzed the soot at this site, and saw that a large fraction of the organic carbon is soot, and you just can’t have that unless you have really high temperatures,” Mitra said. “So that’s what led us to provide support to the story that this was a very high-temperature fire. … And that then supported the idea that this was an external source of energy such as a meteor.”

This map illustrates the reach of a blast similar to the 1908 explosion over Tunguska, Russia, overlaid on the Jordan site. (Contributed image)

Other research that supported the hypothesis included the presence of diamond-like carbon, melted pottery, mudbricks and roofing clay; the directionality of the debris; high-pressure shock metamorphism of quartz; high-temperature melted minerals; and human bones in the destruction layer. There is also a high concentration of salt in the destruction layer, which could have ruined agriculture in the area, explaining the abandonment of more than a dozen towns and cities in the lower Jordan Valley in the following centuries.

The researchers considered and dismissed other potential processes that could explain the destruction, including volcanic or earthquake activity, wildfire, warfare and lightning, but none provided an explanation for the various lines of evidence as well as a cosmic impact or airburst.

This is detailed in a paper titled “A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea,”

The idea is that such an event would certainly have generated an oral tradition that sought to understand and explain the phenomenon:

Genesis 19:24 describes sulfur raining down out of the heavens and the destruction of the cities and all those living in them, as well as the vegetation in the land.

“So some of the oral traditions talk about the walls of Jericho (about 13 1/2 miles away) falling down, as well as the fires if they’re associated with Sodom,” Mitra said. “Again it’s science; you look at your observations, and in this case it’s the historical record, and you see what you hypothesize and if it fits the data, and the data seem to fit.”

Food for thought.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...