Prelude to Sodom

Responding to a post about my latest podcast, a Facebook friend asked for my thoughts on the “sin of Sodom” that led to its destruction. This has been an ongoing debate, and there is still disagreement as to what led God to fling fire in their direction.

I cannot speak to the value of any religious narratives on the subject. My interest lies in the places where the historical meets the mythical. Both those realms have value and each shapes the other, but they operate by very different rules. Toward that end, let’s take a look at what the ancients told us about Sodom and see what we can find.

Our first recorded mention of Sodom comes in Genesis 13. Upon arriving in the Levant the entourages of Abram (later Abraham) and his nephew Lot begin quarreling. To keep peace, they agree to separate.

10 And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar.

11 Then Lot chose him all the plain of Jordan; and Lot journeyed east: and they separated themselves the one from the other.

12 Abram dwelled in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent toward Sodom.

13 But the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly.

Not long after Abram settled down on “the plain of Mamre” near modern-day Hebron, the region was faced by invaders. This would not be at all uncommon in the Bronze Age Levant, but the details of this conflict were recounted centuries later in what became a best-seller.

14 And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of nations;

That these made war with Bera king of Sodom, and with Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, and Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar.

All these were joined together in the vale of Siddim, which is the salt sea.

Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and in the thirteenth year they rebelled.

Variants of the word “Shinar” are found in Egyptian, Greek, and Hittite records describing southern Mesopotamia. In the Torah שנער is always used to reference Babylonia. Traditionally “Amraphel” has been identified with the Babylonian king and lawgiver Hammurabi (c1810 – c1750 BC)*.

(Quick Note: depending on which chronology you use, any date for Babylon rulers may fall within a 25-to 40-year range in either direction. Translating fragments of old calendars is not an exact science).

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia notes that cutting-edge early 20th-century scholarship believed that Arioch was Eri-aku, king of Larsa.

Worshipper of Larsa, early-mid 18th century BC

Larsa was a cultic center for the Sumerian sun god Utu, worshipped by the Akkadians as Shamash. After the fall of the Sumerian Empire at the end of the third millennium BC, the Sumerians ruled a rump dynasty in the city-states of Isin and Larsa. But around 1924 BC Gungunum, an Amorite governor of Larsa, seized power over the city and its trade route with the Persian Gulf.

Mesopotamia 2000-1700 BC

The Amorites came from northeastern Syria and spoke a Canaanite dialect. Long scorned as “the MAR.TU who know no house nor town, the boors of the mountains…” by Mesopotamia’s sophisticated Akkadians and Sumerians, the Amorites soon seized control in city-states around the region, including a small town called Babylon.

Under Amorite rule, Larsa continued to rise until it had conquered Isin and several other southern Mesopotamia city-states. But then, somewhere between 1764 and 1699 BC, Babylonian troops led by King Hammurabi I (himself of Amorite descent) conquered Larsa and deposed King Rim-Sin (Servant of the Moon God or, in Akkadian, Eri-Aku).

Proto-Elamite Mountain Goat; Susa, Iran, 3100-2900 BC

According to Genesis 14, Sodom, Gomorrah, and three other smaller city-states served Chedorlaomer king of Elam (presumably as vassals) for twelve years. In the thirteenth year, the states rebelled. The next year Chedorlaomar came to the Vale of Siddim with four armies.

While “Chedor” is an Elamite word for “Servant of” and “Laomer” an Elamite god/dess, we have no historical records of any Elamite leader whom we could even tentatively identify with Chedorlaomer. But we know a good deal, though not so much as we would like, about Elam.

Located in southwestern Iran, the Elamites were a Bronze Age regional superpower. Susa, the largest Elamite city, was founded around 4,000 BC. (That’s 1,400 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza). 4,500 years ago Susa was trading with Harappa in the Indus Valley for precious minerals and carved seals.

For many centuries the Elamites were vassals of the Sumerians. But around 2004 BC, after centuries of regional drought left the Sumerian Empire weakened, the Elamites sacked the Sumerian city of Ur. You might have heard of a fellow named Abram, better known today as Abraham. Abram leaves “Ur of the Chaldees” in search of a Promised Land around this time.

Hittite War Chariot with Naked Enemy Underfoot,

There’s a pretty widely accepted theory that Tidal (תִדְעָל in Hebrew) is Tudhaliya, a Hittite name. The Hittites show up in Anatolia around the time the Elamites are sacking Ur. They come riding chariots, which are the hypersonic missiles of the 20th century BC warfare scene.

We’re not sure whether they came in over the Caucasus Mountains or from the Caspian Steppes. But we know the Hittites soon gained control over the region and that their language blended with local Indo-European dialects in western Anatolia to form Luwic the way Latin became Romance languages. And we even know that by 1600 BC the Hittites occupied land as far south as modern-day Aleppo, Syria.

But we also know that for most of their history the Hittites had a hostile relationship with the Babylonians and that in 1595 BC the Hittites sacked Babylon. It would be a very strange expedition that included a Babylonian, two of his vassals, and one of his most dangerous enemies.

There is another problem. We have no archaeological evidence or cuneiform records that the Elamites had any military presence or any vassal states in Canaan. Everything we know to date suggests that at their zenith the Elamites got no further west than the Tigris River.

There was, of course, a rather famous sack of Canaan by Babylonian forces. But that happened in 598 BC, over 1,000 years after Abram and Lot arrive in the Promised Land.

There’s an alternate theory on who these invaders were, and I’ll get to that later. But now that we’ve spent some time talking about the bad guys, let’s move on to the other bad guys. According to the Bible, the Caananite combatants from the Cities on the Plain were

  • Bera king of Sodom
  • Birsha king of Gomorrah
  • Shinab king of Admah
  • Shemeber king of Zeboiim
  • and an unnamed “king of Bela, which is Zoar”

Unfortunately, we know even less about the rulers of the Cities on the Plain. While several sites have been presented. All we know is that they met this invading army in “the vale of Siddim, which is the Salt Sea.” There, things went poorly for the Canaanite kings. Genesis 14 continues:

10 And the vale of Siddim was full of slimepits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and fell there; and they that remained fled to the mountain.

11 And they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their victuals, and went their way.

12 And they took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.

Fortunately, Abram is able to rescue his nephew. (I note here that one could easily conclude from this reading that Lot was captured on the battlefield fighting for Sodom).

13 And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew; for he dwelt in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner: and these were confederate with Abram.

14 And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan.

15 And he divided himself against them, he and his servants, by night, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus.

16 And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people

We’ve already established that the Babylon/Larsa/Elam/Hittite Axis of Evil is unlikely. But Genesis 14:15 may offer a clue to where these marauders originated. Abram and his 318 armed men followed the captives to a city the 6th/5th century BC scribes identified as “Dan.”

Tel Dan, Upper Galilee, Israel

In the 12th century, BC warriors from the Hebrew Tribe of Dan conquered the Phoenician city of Laish and renamed it after their founder. But Laish had been occupied for a couple millennia before the Danite raid. At the time the raiders carried Lot north, Laish was a fortified city with heavy walls. And given the Phoenicians did a brisk business in slavery, it is not hard to imagine a band of marauders heading to a large Phoenician market town with a fresh batch of merchandise.

Laish/Dan lies in the Upper Galilee of northeastern Israel, about 175 miles north of Abram’s home around the area of modern-day Hebron in the West Bank. According to this account, Abram and his servants came by night, split up, and drove them out all the way to “Hobah, on the left hand of Damascus.”

Damascus, which lies about 80 miles (130 km) north of Dan, was at the time considerably smaller than it is today. While there is still some debate about where Hobah was located, Syrian Jews have long identified it with the village of Jobar (today a municipality of a much larger Damascus). In the Bronze Age Damascus and the surrounding regions owed fealty to the King of Qatna.

Like much of the region in the 18th century BC, Qatna lay under Amorite rule. Qatna was also closely allied with the Amorite rulers of Mari. But when Hammurabi conquered Mari in 1761 BC* Qatna lost one of its greatest allies and trading partners. Hammurabi remembered Qatna’s support of Mari and favored Qatna’s long-time adversaries, Yamhad.

As support from the east dried up, Qatna diminished. Yamhad sacked Qatna sometime in the late 17th century, almost 150 years after Hammurabi took Mari. By the time the scribes began writing down the Old Testament over a millennia later, Qatna had been forgotten for centuries.

Ruins of Royal Palace, Qatna, Syria. 3rd – 2nd Millennium BC

Was there a real Abraham or is he just a western Semitic ethnogenesis myth? In the word of myth, the answer to both questions may be “Yes.” Abraham is honored in several world religions, but before he rose to that fame he was a popular figure amongst the various Children of Canaan. (Even the stories compiled by Jacob’s line declared Abraham the father of Ishmael). But that leads us inexorably back to the question of why these stories about a sheep herder from Ur in the Chaldees rose to such prominence.

Was there a real Sodom? Ancient Semites, and later Christians and Muslims, certainly thought so. There’s certainly a good deal of folk legend and creation mythology wrapped around whatever facts we may find today. The story of Sodom has also been used to justify condemnation of homosexuality, which makes it especially unpopular in our age of polymorphous perversity.

It’s tempting to point to all the flaws in the Biblical story and claim the whole thing never happened, especially since nobody has conclusively located Sodom or Gomorrah despite centuries of searching. But there’s one little issue. While four of the Cities on the Plain were annihilated, the fifth city was spared. And that city has survived to the present day.

In my next post, I hope to use an ancient oasis as a way station from which to find the cities that were in Lost in The Doom that Came to Sodom. See you then.

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