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Abraham’s Era

Here is a post I’ve been meaning to get around to for many months but for whatever reason never quite got inspired to finish it. Several months ago Claude Mariottini drew my attention to this article by Leibel Reznick attempting to adduce archeological evidence for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). Obviously, people will have wildly differing opinions about whether it is even worth the effort to find such evidence.

Rabbi Reznick argues for identifying Sodom and the other “cities of the plain” mentioned in Genesis 14 and 19 with the ruins of five Canaanite cities south and east of the Dead Sea that were destroyed in some kind of fiery ordeal during the Early Bronze Age. Personally, I think chronological considerations makes it highly unlikely that this is the correct solution to the mystery. These cities were destroyed long before Abraham was even born. There are a number of lines of evidence that lead me to this conclusion:

Amorite Incursions

Most scholars attribute the Middle Bronze Age IIA (MB IIA) culture in Palestine to the arrival of the Amorites (William LaSor et al., Old Testament Survey, 2nd ed. [Eerdmans, 1996] 39). One interpretation of Abraham’s migration from northern Mesopotamia to Canaan is that it was part of this larger movement of Semitic tribes into this region after the cultural collapse at the end of the Early Bronze Age. If so, then Abraham belongs in the MB IIA phase as well. Many Canaanite cities were abandoned during the last phase of the Early Bronze Age (EB IV) and the first phase of the Middle Bronze Age (MB I). The Amorites (including Abraham?) began settling in the region when the population was beginning to rebound. In absolute terms, this archeological period begins c. 2000 BC. It is roughly synchronous with the end of Egypt’s First Intermediate Period and the beginning of the so-called Middle Kingdom.

(Note: Long-time readers may know I have a beef with the way ancient chronology has been put together. In this post, however, the archeological strata matter more than the absolute dates, and therefore all dates given according to the “conventional” chronology.)

The Battle of Four Kings vs. Five

The best guess for the incursion of Mesopotamian and Syrian armies against the ‘cities of the plain” described in Genesis 14 is roughly between 2000–1800 BC: between fall of the Ur III dynasty and rise of Hammurabi. Elam did indeed have a period of dominance in this era, during which such an expedition led by an (otherwise unattested) Elamite king would have been feasible. This era was brought to an end by Hammurabi, whose reign began in 1728 BC (“Low Chronology”) or 1792 (“Middle Chronology”). During this era, “power alliances” such as we see in Genesis 14 were common. According to Kenneth Kitchen,

the system of power-alliances (four kings against five) is typical in Mesopotamian politics within the period c. 2000-1750 BC, but not before or after this general period when different political patterns prevailed. In the eighteenth century BC, for example, a famous Mari letter mentions alliances of ten, fifteen and twenty kings. At least five other Mesopotamian coalitions are known from the nineteenth/eighteenth centuries BC. (Ancient Orient and Old Testament [InterVarsity, 1966] 45)

Thereafter (i.e., beginning with Hammurabi), Elam was able to attain territorial gains only for short periods of time until the demise of the Babylonian empire. It would, therefore, have been both strategically unwise and tactically difficult for an Elamite ruler in later periods to have taken on such a task.

Egyptian Evidence

When might Abraham have visited Egypt (Gen 12)? One theory first (to my knowledge) suggested by F. C. Cook in the nineteenth century suggests connections with the early Twelfth Dynasty, either during the reign of Amenemhat I (1991–1962 BC) or his successor, Senuseret I (1971–1926). The evidence is as follows:

A. Parallels with the Tale of Sinuhe point once again to MB IIA (early Twefth Dynasty) as the era of the early patriarchs. The Tale of Sinuhe depicts the reign of Senuseret I after the death of his father, Amenemhat I.

(1) Genesis 12:10-20 depicts Abram entering Egypt and later being escorted to the border. Sinuhe refers to a line of fortifications on the eastern border of the Delta. Could this be the “Shur which is opposite Egypt” (Gen 25:18; 1 Sam 15:7; cf. Gen 16:7)?

(2) In both Genesis and Sinuhe the residents of Canaan are still organized in tribes with a pastoral lifestyle, suggesting the region is still in disarray following the collapse of the Early Bronze Age civilization. Pasturage and wells are key concerns, again as in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis. Sinuhe describes wealthy sheikhs living in tents, with livestock and household retainers/fighting men. Likewise, Abraham had 318 fighting men; Esau later had 400.

B. The Beni Hassan wall painting depicts an Asiatic (Semitic) caravan visiting Egypt in Yr 6 Senuseret II (1892 BC). Perhaps a hundred years after Abraham, this scene might be roughly contemporary with Jacob and his family entering Egypt.

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

Finally we come to the question of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are basically three options for locating these cities archeologically. Some identify Sodom with Bab edh-Dhra in the southeastern quadrant of the Dead Sea—or with nearby Numeira, which is Reznick’s conclusion. Steven Collins is a vocal supporter of the theory that Sodom is the site known as Tall el-Hammam in the northeastern quadrant. Finally, there is the classical belief that Sodom is currently underwater near En-Gedi, in the southwest quadrant of the Dead Sea.

Many archaeologists have looked for the remains of Sodom in the region around the southern tip of the Dead Sea, either under the shallow waters there or in the nearby ruins of Bab edh-Dhra. A number of factors favor a southern location. The site is a mere sixteen miles from Tell es-Safi, the traditional site of Zoar, to which Lot fled in a matter of hours before the destruction of Sodom (Gen 19:15, 23). The southern shore of the Dead Sea is famous for its bitumen pits (Gen 14:10), and there are also petroleum and sulfur deposits, reminiscent of the “sulfur and fire” that fell upon the city (Gen 19:24). The northern Dead Sea region does not have bitumen, oil, or sulfur.

The traditional identification has come under fire in the past dozen years by Dr. Steven Collins, dean of the College of Archeology and Biblical History at Trinity Southwest University in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Beginning in 1996, Collins began to question the traditional site. He is now convinced the remains of Sodom are to be found at Tall el-Hammam in Jordan. (“Tall” is the accepted Jordanian equivalent of “Tell,” usually used for sites in Israel.)

Collins argues that “the Bible clearly says they were located on the eastern edge of the Jordan Disk, that well-watered circular plain of the southern Jordan Valley just north of the Dead Sea.” Furthermore, Bab edh-Dhra was destroyed too early, at the end of the Early Bronze Age (c. 2300 BC).

Unfortunately, Tall al-Hammam was almost certainly destroyed too late to be the city of Sodom. According to the reports of Collins’s team, the site has a good representation of MB IIA, B, and C, meaning it could not have been destroyed much earlier than the end of the Middle Bronze Age, c. 1600 BC. A MB IIC destruction is completely out of sync with other evidence favoring a MB IIA date for Abraham.

We are therefore apparently left with the traditional site of Sodom, which has recently been defended by Marcus Laudien (“Sodom and the Dead Sea,” Journal of the Ancient Chronology Forum 9 [2002] 85–90). In ancient times it was assumed that Sodom was formerly located in the southwest quadrant of the Dead Sea. Dio Chrysostom (3:2) places the site of ancient Sodom “very near” to a community of Essenes which might very well be En-Gedi (see also Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.15.73). Quoting Poseidonius, Strabo describes the Dead Sea region thus:

… near Moasada [=Masada] are to be seen rugged rocks which have been scorched, as also, in many places, fissures and ashy soil, … and therefore people believe the oft repeated assertions of the local inhabitants, that more than thirteen inhabited cities were in that region for which Sodom was the metropolis. But those outside a circuit of about sixty stadia [=about 6.9 miles] of that city escaped unharmed, and that by reason of earthquakes and of eruptions of fire and hot waters containing asphalt and sulphur, the lake burst its bounds, and rocks were enveloped with fire. And, as for the cities, some were swallowed up and others were abandoned by those who were able to escape. (Geography 16.2.43)

Much later, Stephen of Byzantium mentioned in his Ethnikon that En-Gedi was an oasis in the vicinity of “Sodom of Arabia” and that Sodom is now covered by the water of the “Salt Sea” (Laudien, 89).

Where, then, does this leave Abraham’s Sodom? According to Genesis 14:3, the Dead Sea (or at least part of it) was once called “the Valley of Siddim”—in other words, it was once dry land. Geologists have, in fact, analyzed radio-nuclides in Dead-Sea sediments to determine lake levels in prehistoric times (Laudien, 88). They conclude that the area of the Dead Sea increased greatly during the MB IIA period, after c. 2000 BC. During earlier times, large areas of today’s Dead Sea were dry, especially the southern basin, which is shallower than the larger northern basin. During the Iron Age and into the early Middle Ages, the Dead Sea was once again confined to the northern basin.

In 1978, geologists used sonar to map the topography of the Dead Sea. This project revealed an elevation on the lake bed 2.4 miles south of En-Gedi, not far from the mouth of the Nahal Hever gorge. About 0.6 miles further south geologists discovered a crater that might have once been a large bitumen quarry. Laudien levels archeological evidence suggesting there is an as-yet undiscovered population center near En-Gedi that prospered throughout the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze periods. Might this center currently be underwater? Might it be the city the Bible calls Sodom?

Conclusions

The most likely era in which Abraham might have lived is Middle Bronze IIA. This was the period of Amorite incursions, a possible (though not uncontested) interpretation of Abraham’s social location. The battle of four invading kings against a five-king alliance of “cities of the plain” most likely took place in the window of optimum opportunity for such an Elamite incursion, also MB IIA (or possibly very late EB). Finally, comparisons with the Tale of Sinuhe and the pictorial evidence of Semitic immigrants in Egypt during the Twelfth Dynasty also point to an MB IIA horzon. In conventional terms, therefore, Abraham most likely lived some time between 2000–1800 BC. I’m inclined to place him in the earliest portion of this time span, during the reign of Amenemhat I.

If this is so, both of the two leading candidates for the location of ancient Sodom must be eliminated. Bab edh-Dhra (along with Numeira) was destroyed in the Early Bronze Age, at least 300 years before Abraham entered Canaan. Tall el-Hammam was destroyed in the MB IIC period, at least two to three hundred years too late.

Although nothing can be proven, I think the most likely location of Sodom is underneath the waters of the Dead Sea, on an elevation approximately two and a half miles south of En-Gedi, near the mouth of Nahal Hever gorge. When the Dead Sea began to expand during the MB IIA period (i.e., the time of Abraham and thereafter), this site eventually became submerged for a thousand years. It once again appeared during the time of Israel’s monarchy then re-submerged in since medieval times. Currently, the Dead Sea is once again drying up because of widespread irrigation, and it is possible that the curious lake-floor features that Laudien points out may become available for archeological investigation.

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