Mount Sodom in the Judean Desert provides its visitors and hikers with a stunning view over the Dead Sea that brings to life one of the Bible’s most infamous stories. Known in Arabic as Jabl al-Sdum, this mountain has been linked to the biblical Sodom for centuries, if not, millennia. While its name implies that the exact place of the destroyed ancient city is understood, it turns out that the more likely location is in a more logical and more fascinating spot on the map.
The story of Sodom:
Abram and his nephew Lot have a dispute over grazing land, and Lot chooses to live in the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea region. While Lot is residing in the city of Sodom, Abraham receives the prophecy of the city’s destruction due to its wickedness. Just before the city is destroyed, Lot and his family are saved by three messengers of God and they find refuge in the city of Tzo’ar.
Analyzing the text further can give us the clues we need to determine two options of the location of the fabled city:
“As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on, saying, ‘Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away….’ Still he delayed. So the men seized his hand and the hands of his wife and his two daughters – in the Lord’s mercy on him – and brought him out and left him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, one said, ‘Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away.’… ‘but I cannot flee to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die. Look, that town there is near enough to flee to; it is such a little place’ (mitz’ar – מצער)! Hence the town came to be called Tzo’ar (צוער). As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Tzo’ar, the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah….” Genesis 19:15-23.
A few things jump out from this description of events:
1) We can gather that Sodom is not on a mountain because when Lot is told to flee towards the hills he chooses instead to flee towards a town which is “near enough to flee to” implying it isn’t as far as the hills. There are hills on either side of the Dead Sea, but the hills on the western (Israel) side are basically uninhabitable due to lack of water and high salinity in the soil. On Google Maps, and during biblical times, the eastern (Jordanian) side of the southern Dead Sea had lots of fresh water to drink and farm with.
2) Based on the timing given, we can guess how far Lot and his family ran. Dawn to sunrise in the Dead Sea region (with high mountains in Jordan to the east) takes approximately one hour – depending on the time of year. If Lot is running for his life with his family and a few possessions, and taking into account his hesitating (AKA dawdling or faffing) the furthest they likely ran in an hour was maybe six kilometres. Looking at the map, if Lot were running across the plain from what we now call Mount Sodom, he would only have reached the centre of the Dead Sea.
3) Finding the location of Tzo’ar is critical to determining the radius of where Sodom might have been. Using the surprisingly accurate method employed by archaeologists in Israel for almost 200 years, there are two similar sounding names of towns in Arabic to Tzo’ar: Gawr as-Safi and Gawr al-Mazraah. Without too much of a stretch of the imagination, the names of these towns could be related to Lot’s city of refuge, Tzo’ar.
Placing Sodom in the Dead Sea of today allows for Lot to have run from a valley to greener pastures to two nearby possible locations of Tzo’ar.
Regardless of the names, the descriptions of these towns fit the match Tzo’ar because of its elevation, water source, size, and greenery.
But how could a city in the Bible be under the Dead Sea?
From last week’s parashah of Lech Lecha, we can glean a few clues to why it might make sense that Sodom was in the centre of the Dead Sea. There is a battle between the tribal kings of the region in the “Valley of Siddim,” and the Torah describes its geographical location as: “now the Dead Sea” (Gen. 14:3).
A few verses later, in verse 10, we read: “Now the valley of Siddim was dotted with bitumen (tar) pits.” While these tar pits are impossible to find now, from the time of ancient Egypt until the 20th century the region was world famous for its natural asphalt that would form in the soil and then would float to the top of the water. Genesis may be referring to a prehistoric period before the southern Dead Sea where a valley rich in minerals and tar existed.
The southern half of the Dead Sea is shallower than the north and the valley is narrower – signs that geologists use to date the southern half as younger than the northern side. This implies that the valley was flooded from the north due to tectonic activity and/or unusual weather activity.
It is not uncommon in the book of Genesis to take breaks in the narrative to explain how places came to be or how the names of places were decided. By imagining the location of Sodom in this southern part of the Dead Sea, as opposed its traditional location on the mountain, we can visualize the city’s ongoing violent destruction. The story of Sodom could be the Bible’s origin story of the Dead Sea and its mysterious floating asphalt. Sodom’s sulphuric rain and catastrophic end is therefore not just a story about the dangers of leading immoral lives, but an origin story for the Dead Sea itself!