Sodom and Gomorrah have been much abused in fringe history, going back to the early suggestion dating back to the Soviet sources cited by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier that the biblical cities of sin were destroyed by a nuclear bomb, speculation repeated in Erich von Däniken and his successors, sometimes substituting an alien death ray for a nuclear bomb. The tale of cities felled from the sky is not just an ancient one, but one far more widespread than the Bible. The Arabs had a parallel myth of the destruction of Iram of the Pillars in a great explosion of sound from the sky (Qur’an 89:6-14 with Arabian Nights 276-279), and Vedic literature tells of the destruction of the triple city of Dwarka in a tremendous burst of energy from the sky (Mahabharata, Karna Parva 34).
The Universe: Ancient Mysteries Solved E03 “Heavenly Destruction” intends to explore whether a comet or asteroid hit Sodom and Gomorrah, a theory that has been banging around the scientific community for a several decades now, and which bears more than a passing resemblance to Immanuel Velikovsky’s ridiculous idea that the planet Jupiter was once close enough to the earth that its periodic discharges of electricity knocked out the two cities, while Mercury toppled the Tower of Babel the same way, or the still earlier claim of Edmond Halley that a comet strike caused the Flood of Noah. That idea actually spawned a whole sub-genre of comet-strike theories about biblical events in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In volume 13 of the Gentleman’s Magazine (1743), for example, an anonymous writer wrote of comets: “Perhaps he [God] made use of one to destroy Sodom, Gomorrah, and the Cities of the Plain.”
The show gives a background lecture on asteroids and suggests that ancient peoples knew of falling rocks and thought of them as rocks from the sky. This isn’t entirely certain. The scholia to Pindar state that the poet saw a rock fall from the sky, but when he found the meteor, he believed it to be a statue of the Great Mother sent from the goddess in the sky. The Greeks considered meteors to be divine gifts, but down to the eighteenth century many denied that it was possible for rocks to fall from the sky since beyond earth there was, by definition, nothing but ether.
After a demonstration using bird shot to represent the destructive power of meteors, the show tries to establish that Sodom and Gomorrah actually existed, which is not at all certain. The Genesis account from chapter 13 is discussed, along with the destruction narrative in 19. The show discusses how the sin of Sodom is never specified in Genesis. (In fact, it’s the Qur’an that actually preserves the story that developed later among Jews and Christians that it was gay sex that burned the cities--26:160-175).
The show recommends Tall el-Hamman, a ruined city in the plain of Jordan, as their candidate for Sodom. It was the largest Iron Age city in the region, and excavations carried out in 2006 suggested that a layer of ash represented a cataclysmic destruction of the city around 1600 BCE. (The show gives this as 1750-1650 BCE.) However, 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.
Lot’s wife is explained (for now) as a rationalization of salt pillars extant near the Dead Sea. But after suggesting that Lot’s wife might not have literally turned into a pillar of salt (which we will explore more later in the hour), the show seems unable to see that logically that would suggest that this frees us from the need to take any other verses as literally true either.
The show suggests that a greenish glaze found on the ruined city’s pottery was due to extreme temperatures caused by a cosmic airburst over the city, that is, an exploding asteroid. It’s an interesting question. The show talks about the Tunguska Event and the 2013 Russian asteroid explosion as modern parallels.
The trouble is that the biblical account doesn’t really match an asteroid strike as described by The Universe, or at least nothing in the account demands this explanation. The only verses that document the destruction say the following:
24 Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;
To explain this, the show tells us that brimstone (burning sulfur) was actually meant to represent “yellow light” and thus an asteroid explosion, and the talking heads euhemerize the story by taking the rain to mean the precipitating particles falling from the mid-air explosion as they cooled and gave off smoke. (Sulfur burns with a blue flame.) The show asks us to believe that the smoke rising from the ruins was a mushroom cloud, given off by an asteroid collision. I’m not sure there’s enough in the text to distinguish between a mushroom cloud and any other type of large fire. Frankly, they’re reading far too much in to the brief wording, and no one stops to consider the rather formulaic use of fire and brimstone and other forms of fiery destruction elsewhere in the Bible.
One unanswered question is whether other cities in the area also show evidence of the same cosmic collision. The Bible, after all, tells us of two: Sodom and Gomorrah. (Why doesn’t anyone look for Gomorrah, after all?)
We next look at a Byzantine-era map of the Holy Land that shows Zoar thirty miles away from Tall el-Hamman. Obviously, if one takes the Biblical narrative literally, Tall el-Hamman cannot be Sodom if the southern site is the ancient Zoar since Lot supposedly reached Zoar in one night’s travel. Thus, we are told that the Bronze Age site of Bab edh-Dhra, near Zoar, is a candidate for being the real Sodom and Numeira for Gomorrah. They have been one since 1973, when Walter E. Rast and R. Thomas Schaub proposed the identification. In turn, many of the sites south of the Dead Sea have evidence of sulfur and of fiery destruction. But Bab edh-Dhra and its sister city Numeira were destroyed centuries apart.
This leads us down another rabbit hole of biblical literalism with complaints that no site matches all of the material from Genesis, and that the Byzantine mapmakers may have been wrong in identifying Zoar, simply guessing at a location.
Not once does anyone consider that the Biblical narrative might be incorrect, or that it conflates events or exaggerates events, or localizes an older myth, or any other possibility. Instead, we keep looking for a perfect match in time and space because “it had to be an important event,” as one talking head puts it.
The show ends with fancy graphics depicting an air burst and its impact. The problematic aspects of the narrative are ignored: How did Lot and his family know the air burst was coming? Worse, like an ancient astronaut theorist, we hear one pundit tell us that Lot’s wife was turned not to salt but to ash from the flames. But how is it that she was close enough to ignite while her family—standing right beside her—was not? Oh, we hear, she wasn’t in the cave while everyone else was. No, wrong again. Genesis 19:23 specifically says that all the family waited out the destruction before the city of Zoar. Lot only went to the caves in the mountains after his wife’s transformation, as per Genesis 19:30. Live by literalism, die by literalism.
Biblical archaeologist Robert Mullins tells us that for many seekers after Sodom the most important reason to try to find the historical Sodom is so we can feel secure that “the rest of the Bible is valid.” If Sodom did not burn, then Judeo-Christian-Islamic faith is in vain. Or, as 1 Corinthians 15:14 more poetically puts it in regard to another miracle of faith: “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” I’m not really sure that an asteroid does much for theology, at least no more than the comet suggested as an agent of divine vengeance in the 1700s, but I guess this falls into the category of rationalizing the miracles of faith. Better an asteroid than atheism, I guess.
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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