Is the Bible's account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah just a myth?
Not likely, says an archaeologist who believes, following 12 years of sifting sand near the Dead Sea in Jordan, that he has found the ruins of the largest twin cities in the area, one that fits all the criteria of the Bible account.
Steven Collins, a professor of biblical studies and apologetics at Trinity Southwest University, says a "monstrous" site in Tall el-Hammam in the southern Jordan Valley, which lies eight miles northeast of the Dead Sea, perfectly matches the biblical descriptions of the "city of sin," destroyed in a day by fire and brimstone.
Collins began exploring the rubble in 2005 and eventually concluded that it is indeed the site inhabited by Lot who was saved by Abraham from judgment of the dominant city-state of the era.
"When we explored the area, the choice of Tall el-Hammam as the site of Sodom was virtually a no-brainer since it was at least five to 10 times larger than all the other Bronze Age sites in the entire region."
The site is a large mound, or tel, that he believes represents the ruins of the two cities. The team of researchers has since found high and thick defensive walls, gates, towers, plazas and ramparts as well as a palace in the upper city.
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As one would expect, life in the city appears to have come to a sudden halt near the end of the Middle Bronze Age period before being abandoned for 700 years.
"Tall el-Hammam seemed to match every Sodom criterion demanded by the text," said Collins.
Based on the excavated site, despite the heavily fortified defensive capabilities, the city seems to have come to a sudden, inexplicable end – just as the Genesis account in the Bible says.
For millennia, the ancient cities have been used as metaphors for vice and homosexuality.
Collins said the city was likely abandoned after an earthquake, while other experts suggested an asteroid may have been to blame.
In 2008, mysterious circular clay tablets were identified as a witness' account of an asteroid that destroyed the cities. Two rocket scientists – Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell, who spent eight years trying to solve the mystery – believe that the tablet's symbols give a detailed account of how a mile-long asteroid hit the region, causing thousands of deaths and devastating an area of more than 386,000 square miles. The impact, equivalent to more than 1,000 tons of TNT exploding, would have created one of the world's biggest-ever landslides.
The clay tablet, called the Planisphere, was discovered by the Victorian archaeologist Henry Layard in the remains of the library of the Royal Palace at Nineveh.
The duo used computers to recreate the night sky thousands of years ago and pinpointed the sighting described on the tablet by a Sumerian astrologer, pinpointing the likely date to before dawn June 29 in the year 3,123 B.C.
What does the Bible say about Sodom and Gomorrah? There are references in Genesis and the New Testament as well.
Genesis 19 is a detailed account of two angels who visited the city in an effort to save Lot and his family and were confronted by a gang threatening to sexually assault them. The angels had been dispatched by God at the urging of Abraham, Lot's uncle.
The angels gathered Lot's family and took them out of the city, saying: "For we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxen great before the face of the Lord; and the Lord hath sent us to destroy it."
The angels cautioned Lot's family not to look back once they had been safely removed from the cities.
"Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven," it says in Genesis 19:24-26. "25 And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt."
Genesis 13:13 explains that the people of Sodom "were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly."
The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos and Zephaniah all refer to the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Jesus referred to Sodom and Gomorrah in Matthew 10, explaining to His disciples that when they visited towns to share the good news and met resistance to shake the dust off their feet before leaving:
"Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city," it says in verse 15.
Jesus is also quoted in Matthew 11:23 as pronouncing judgment on the Galilee town of Capernaum with a reference to Sodom. The ruins of Capernaum have since been excavated and it remains a popular tourist site today.
2 Peter 2:6 quotes the apostle as saying the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes remained as an example to "those that should live ungodly" in his day.
Likewise, Jude 7:7 says: "Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire."