Sodom, Gomorrah, and the Dead Sea

by Stephen Caesar

According to Genesis 14:3, the kings of the east and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah "were joined [in battle] together in the vale of Siddim, which is the salt sea." This indicates that the place of battle was both a "vale" (valley) and a "sea" (the Dead Sea). This is not a contradiction-it actually proves that the original story was written in Abraham's time (c. 2000-1800 BC), and then updated centuries later (possibly by Moses). The original eyewitness author of Genesis 14 (probably Abraham himself) mentioned several places whose names had fallen out of use by Moses' time. For example, Genesis 14:2 states that one of the five cities of the plain was "Bela, which is Zoar," indicating that the city's name had been changed. Verse 7 mentions "En-Mishpat, which is Kadesh," and verse17 refers to "the valley of Shaveh, which is the king's dale" (Frumkin & Elitzur 50).

This reveals that a later writer added modernizing terms for his readership, because the original story used antiquated place-names. Most important of all is the changed name of the battlefield itself: "the vale of Siddim, which is the salt sea." Geologists Amos Frumkin of the Hebrew University and Yoel Elitzur of Herzog College in Jerusalem write: "In other words, the valley where the battle took place was, at the time the account was written or edited, a sea! The obvious candidate to fit this description is the southern portion of the Dead Sea" (ibid. 50).

According to the two scholars, this explains archaeologists' inability to locate Sodom and Gomorrah: "One thing about the Dead Sea is certain: Its water level has fluctuated considerably over the millennia. When the water level is relatively low, the southern basin of the lake dries up, exposing the shelf underneath. When the water level rises, the southern shelf is submerged and the shoreline around the lake is higher. Any structure, such as a port built on the edge of the lake during periods of low water levels, would then be under water" (ibid. 44).

Frumkin and Elitzur found a large tree stump on the Dead Sea shore that had been jammed into a narrow salt canyon. The stump was dated to 2100-1800 BC. This established the time that the tree stump was jammed there, and, correspondingly, the time of a dramatic drop in the level of the sea. The sea rose again in the time of Moses (1500-1200 BC), flooding the southern end (ibid. 48). The two scholars remark that "the text of Genesis 14 reveals that at the time of the Patriarchs (c. 2100-1850 BC), when the battle of the kings occurred, the southern basin of the lake was completely dry….What's more, by the time the narrative was written down or edited, hundreds of years later, the valley upon which the battle was fought was completely inundated" (ibid. 49).

More evidence that the dried-up southern part of the Dead Sea was the battle site is found in Genesis 14:10: "The vale of Siddim was full of slimepits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and fell there." Today, with the Dead Sea again receding, these pits are forming suddenly along the seashore. In 1998, the ground abruptly collapsed beneath a woman at the seaside resort of En Gedi. Later collapses, which sucked up roads and a building, induced authorities to close the resort (ibid. 50).

The geologists conclude that the battle of Genesis 14 "must have happened at a time when the lake level was low, probably around 2000 BC….[This discovery] offers insights into an enigmatic biblical text that has baffled biblical scholars for years" (ibid. 50).

Reference:

Frumkin, A., and Y. Elitzur. 2001. "The Rise and Fall of the Dead Sea." Biblical Archaeology Review 27, no. 6.

Stephen Caesar is a graduate student in anthropology/archaeology at Harvard.

He is the author of the e-book The Bible Encounters Modern Science,

available at www.1stbooks.com.