QUESTION: I was watching a documentary the other night on Pompeii and it was interesting because I had just read about the destruction of Sodom and Lot… I was wondering if this was the same story… But then they mentioned that Pompeii happened in 79AD so that’s obviously not it… but it seems like the way that Sodom and Gomorrah may have been destroyed even. Just curious if there was any history on this. Is there a good source to look up artifacts and things that have been found or proven?
RESPONSE: So as you found out, Pompeii is in Italy and Sodom and Gomorrah in Israel, about 1400 miles apart, and about 2000 years apart in history. They do sound similar in the apocalyptic destruction that rained down on both cities. In the case of Pompeii, being much younger and in the shadow of a still active volcano, there hasn’t been any debate about what happened or when.
Sodom and Gomorrah on the other hand, have been debated as mythical cities for a long time. In part because the modern scholars tended then (as now) to treat the Bible in the case of historical unreliability to be “guilty until proven innocent”. Also, there was no “smoking gun” in the area of Sodom, that is, no volcano present to explain the supernatural description of chaos and annihilation. There was no obvious natural cause of “fire and brimstone” in the Dead Sea Valley.
But all that would change as the science of archeology progressed. Digs in the Dead Sea revealed several candidates for Sodom and Gomorrah, called “cities of the Plain”. I’ve been here, it is one of the lowest places on earth – 1400 feet BELOW sea level, unbearably hot, and yet lush, because the Jordan river runs down a massive fault line in that deep valley watering the otherwise arid place. So many cities cropped up here during Abraham’s time. Scientists finding all these remains have finally settled on a couple of very probable candidates for Sodom and Gomorrah.
Old cities usually are built on top of older versions of themselves in many strata, like a layered cake. So when you find a mound and start digging, you are going on a trip through time the farther down you go. In a strata that relates to about 3000 BC, in a city also named Numeira, they found a bunch of things that make them think this is Biblical Sodom. Among other bits of evidence, the whole city shows signs of advanced, intense burning. Skeletons are scattered everywhere, the gates are burned etc.
I’ll let you read their case for yourself, it’s VERY involved, but also very interesting: Bible Archaeology Article on Sodom
Now, as to the HOW this happened, I assume as you do, that this judgment of God was likely some natural destruction, the timing of which was seen to be God’s hand of judgment. But what did God use, since there’s no volcano? Well, recall that this is a rift valley. Earthquakes happen here all the time. Also, recently (like in the 1970’s) they discovered combustible petroleum materials under the valley floor, natural gas, sulfur, bitumen and oils.
So one theory is that a severe earthquake happened, and this unleashed combustibles into the air. If they were lit by lightning or surface fires, you would have your hellish scene of fire from heaven, as gas was thrown into the air, lit, and burning material fell on the cities consuming them completely.
Now, one other detail you probably noticed. Lot’s wife turns back and is turned into a pillar of salt. There’s no need to insert a magical transformation at this point. The Dead Sea where Sodom is located, is the SALT sea. I swam in it, it’s so full of salt that you CAN’T sink in it. That means anything that gets put in it (including a person, if they didn’t decompose first) becomes “saltified”. Check this out:
It would have been a very Hebrew way of speaking metaphorically to say Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt. But also highly accurate, because if you died in this Dead Sea disaster, your body would have been first covered in debris, and then permanently encased in Salt. She likely didn’t believe the first tremors were going to ruin everything, didn’t just “look” back but actually turned back and re-entered the city, only to be consumed in the judgment God brought.