Fifteen years ago, evangelical Christian archaeologist Steven Collins claimed that the site of Tall El-Hammam was the Biblical Sodom, presenting evidence that the ancient city had suffered a massive and sudden fiery destruction around 1600 BCE. The History channel’s H2 spinoff network turned that claim into an episode of The Universe in 2014. The idea that Sodom had been destroyed by a comet, asteroid, or some other non-supernatural blast from the heavens goes all the way back to 1743, so it isn’t exactly news.
Now the journal Scientific Reports, a less rigorous publication of Nature, has published a new article alleging that Tall El-Hammam was destroyed by an atmospheric blast from an asteroid similar to the explosion that leveled a forest in Tunguska, Russia in 1908. The article caused quite a stir, not so much from the scientific claim—disputable as it is—that the city had been struck by such a blast but by the article’s casual link between that claim and Collins’s identification of the site with Sodom and thus concluding, without evidence, that the Genesis narrative of fire and brimstone was based on real events.
Indeed, there is a rather bizarre paragraph in which the authors try to both claim that Sodom is beyond the scope of their science but also demand we pretend that it is without the need for evidence:
There is an ongoing debate as to whether Tall el-Hammam could be the biblical city of Sodom (Silvia and references therein), but this issue is beyond the scope of this investigation. Questions about the potential existence, age, and location of Sodom are not directly related to the fundamental question addressed in this investigation as to what processes produced high-temperature materials at Tall el-Hammam during the MBA. Nevertheless, we consider whether oral traditions about the destruction of this urban city by a cosmic object might be the source of the written version of Sodom in Genesis. We also consider whether the details recounted in Genesis are a reasonable match for the known details of a cosmic impact event.
If it isn’t relevant, then why consider it if there is no strong proof, and you aren’t planning to offer any?
As I wrote in 2014, there is no strong evidence for accepting such a claim:
… Biblical scholars balked when Stephen Collins, who is also an evangelical Christian, put forward the identification in 2006 and said such discoveries support the historicity of the Bible. He later wrote a book asserting that the site was Sodom, and a co-excavator, Joseph Holden, included the assertion in the Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible. By contrast, those not involved in the excavation have expressed doubt and note that the site is traditionally identified with the biblical site of Shittim. Some critics believed that the site failed to match the geography of Sodom, others that it failed to align with a chronology that places Abraham and Lot before 1700 BCE. This is all rather circular: taking the Bible literally and as inerrant produces much convoluted logic.
Worse, the Sodom narrative isn’t exactly unique in world mythology and therefore can’t be taken as a perfect translation of a real event. For example, Arab mythology records a similar destruction of Iram of the Pillars (Qur’an 89:6-14 with Arabian Nights 276-279), while Vedic mythology tells the same type of story of Dwarka (Mahabharata, Karna Parva 34). Therefore, nothing demands we take the Sodom story literally. My 2014 discussion provides much more detail on the reasons that the claim that Tall El-Hammam was Sodom is neither indisputable nor inevitable.
One of the paper’s many authors, Allen West, is part of the Younger Dryas impact research team hunting the supposed comet that allegedly crashed into the Earth in 10,500 BCE. Other authors are Biblical researchers who are invested in Collins’s claim that Tall El-Hammam was Sodom. At least one author, Phillip J. Silvia, has published books making the Sodom claim and offering other Biblical investigations. Almost none are geologists, but several have published previous academic articles making similar or nearly identical research claims to the one presented in Scientific Reports.
In short: The claim Tall El-Hammam was destroyed by an air burst is disputable. Its identification with Sodom is unproved and dubious, and no one has provided any evidence that an event supposedly transpiring in 1600 BCE was preserved accurately down to the composition of the first written account of Sodom in the surviving Genesis narrative, typically ascribed to the period around 500 BCE or later. If we can’t agree whether the Greeks preserved any real history from the Mycenaeans after only five centuries, we should be very careful in imagining the preservation of stories for two or three times that length with no evidence of intermediary versions.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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