Geomythology is the study of explanation myths related to actual geologic events that may have been witnessed by people. The Bible contains several stories that people have attempted to connect to geological events such as earthquakes or floods. The Biblical context treats these events as supernatural works of God, which puts them in the realm of “spooky geology”. In this post, I’m exploring two geologically-related aspects of the parable of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The first is that of Lot’s wife, who was punished by being turned to a pillar of salt. And the second is about how the dual hedonistic cities were destroyed in a cataclysm.
What the Bible says
There is a backstory to how Lot got into this situation in Sodom but I’m going to skip that history to get right to the part we’re interested in. Angels warned Lot to take his family and leave the wicked city of Sodom quickly because God was going to destroy it and everyone there.
With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.” When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”Genesis 19:15-17
This suggests that they had to hurry, so the doom came suddenly and seemed to require that they needed to get to higher ground. What is it by which they would they be swept away? It is a hazard to read to much into each word as I’ll remark upon later.
Pillar of salt
But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.Genesis 19:26
Poor nameless wife-of-Lot. She didn’t deviated from the strict rules of a plan. The story is asking us to believe that a person was turned into salt. That’s not literally true unless you believe it as a miracle. But there is a reasonable explanation for this story that isn’t disputed.
The Dead Sea is also called the “salt sea” for good reason. The water body became land-locked about two million years ago. It has no outlet and so the water that flows into it evaporates, leaving a hypersaline lake. Deposits of rock salt (the mineral halite) occur on the southwest shore at Mount Sodom including a salt pillar called “Lot’s wife.”
Another pillar that is also referred to as Lot’s wife is outside of a cave that some believe was used by Lot and his family seeking refuge after fleeing the city.
The pillars quite clearly became associated with the Biblical legend because they resemble a human figure. It could be that the legend drew from older local myths that the salt pillars were once unlucky people who were turned to stone. People, animals, or entities turning into rock (petrifaction) is a common folklore motif. The tale of Lot’s weak-willed wife is one of those legends. It seems very possible that the human attributes bestowed on the salt pillars preceded the story of the destruction of Sodom. Her story served to remind people to stick to the explicit instructions commanded by God; it was a parable, not literally true.
Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
The second and more controversial claim regards the destruction of the fertile valley that was the location of the cities. Genesis 19: 24-28 tells that the Lord rained down from the sky burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah. The next morning dense smoke rose from all the land in the plain, like smoke from a furnace. It’s intepreted to be a dramatic fire and brimstone scene!
Over the centuries scientists have debated if natural circumstances could have brought about the demise of the cities. The explanation is hindered because the exact location of the cities is not clear. There is no place in this general area that shows obvious evidence of cities destroyed by a cataclysmic event. Maybe they are buried. Or maybe, the story combines various ideas, exaggeration, and poetic license as means to an end. Let’s look at some potential death blows to a society on the shores of the Dead Sea.
Related content: Geomythology about Hell and the Underworld
The Dead Sea is fed by rivers that may have at one time been flowing healthily. The locals removed all the trees for their purposes. Normal climatic changes likely added to the increased desertification of areas.
The size of the Dead Sea has fluctuated dramatically. When the water level was low, production of the valley certainly suffered. But this mechanism for ruining inhabited areas can’t account for the suddenness that is inherent in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
War is also mentioned as destructive force. People could have quarreled over water, resources or land. Again, it doesn’t fit well with the narrative.
A much more likely idea is that an earthquake occurred on the highly active and complex transform fault that underlies the Dead Sea. The formation of the very deep valley that holds the sea is related to the faulting. The Dead Sea graben exists because the African and Arabian plates are rotating and moving apart. Earthquakes are prevalent and could easily level these ancient cities.
More recent discoveries include deformed soft sediments in the lake that are clear evidence of strong earthquakes, possibly correlated in time to Biblical history. The earthquakes could have caused lake tsunamis, seiches, or flooding that inundated shore cities. The potential for flooding might account for the need to reach the mountains. But it certainly doesn’t correspond to the burning aftermath.
The natural hydrocarbons in this area may have played a role in the dramatic tale of smoke and destruction. Natural gas, oil, and tar exist here, seeping through the faulted rock. If these hydrocarbons ignited as a result of a quake, the damage would have been more dramatic. Burning hydrocarbons could mean explosions, black smoke, flames, and a putrid smell.
There is no denying that the Biblical account sounds very much like a volcanic eruption – from the burning sulfur raining from the sky to the smoking plane left decimated and lifeless. However, no signs of eruptions exist in this recent time. But there was an eruption about 150 miles northeast in Syria and Jordan about 3000 BCE called the Kra eruption. Settlements existed there at the time and archeological digs found remains of cattle herds. The cattle didn’t die from the slow-moving lava but possibly from heat, gases, or starvation from being left behind as the people fled.
It’s possible that in areas closer to the sea, associated subsurface magma caused steam explosions or came into contact with the hydrocarbons that may have combusted. There is documentation of broken rock sediments called breccias that appear to have been produced by hydrothermal explosions. The trapped hydrocarbons may have burned creating stinking sulfuric smoke. Those that survived this destruction could have spread the story of the eruption.
A more recent claim was that the rain of fire and brimstone was the result of a meteor that exploded over the city of Tall el-Hammam in the Jordan valley. The evidence was presented with great fanfare in a journal article of 2021. But it was later heavily criticized. No one would have survived such an event but the distant observers might have felt the effects.
What’s the best answer
Scholars have concluded that Biblical accounts make frequent use of geological events but the dates and places are moved around to suit the best story. Because the sources of the tales have been combined over the centuries, the resulting accounts are not going to be altogether accurate. Time spans are likely collapsed to produce a dramatic tale that didn’t really happen as described at the time and place indicated. The likely explanation is messy: there was a combination of incidents, local legends, and reports that resembled the story in the Bible in some way.
With the location of Sodom and Gomorrah still questionable, we can reasonably conclude that Biblical account of the destruction of these cities is not based on just one event but an amalgamation of stories about different events – local and from the broader general area. Perhaps a strong earthquake destroyed and burned the city and maybe the collective memories of the Kra eruption filtered into the details.
We’ll never be able to pin down the explicit origin for sure.
Bunch, T.E., LeCompte, M.A., Adedeji, A.V. et al. (2021). A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea. Sci Rep 11, 18632 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-97778-3
Genesis, Chapter 19. https://www.christianity.com/bible/niv/genesis/19
Gershon, L. (2021). Ancient City’s Destruction by Exploding Space Rock May Have Inspired Biblical Story of Sodom. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/destruction-of-city-by-space-rock-may-have-inspired-biblical-story-of-sodom-180978734/
Gilat, A.L and Vol A (2015). Sodom and Gomorrah: Fires Created by Ignition of Combustible Gases by Earthquake-Impelled Thermobaric-Hydrothermal Explosions. J Geol Geophys 4:202. https://www.longdom.org/open-access/sodom-and-gomorrah-fires-created-by-ignition-of-combustible-gases-by-earthquakeimpelled-thermobarichydrothermal-explosio-39938.html
Lemonick, S. (2018). Travels in Geology: Soaking up the Dead Sea: A trip to Israel’s salty sea is a geological and historical delight. https://www.earthmagazine.org/article/travels-geology-soaking-dead-sea-trip-israels-salty-sea-geological-and-historical-delight/
Pattingale, J. (2022). The scientific meltdown over a controversial discovery of ‘biblical Sodom’. https://religionnews.com/2022/04/20/after-scientists-debate-meltdown-of-biblical-sodom/
Trifonov, V. (2017). Bible and geology: The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Myth and Geology, Picardi and Masse (eds), Geological Society of London, Special publication 273, 133-142.
USGS (2018). Imagining Israel’s Dead Sea Fault to Understand How Continents Stretch and Rift. https://www.usgs.gov/programs/cmhrp/news/imaging-israels-dead-sea-fault-understand-how-continents-stretch-and-rift
Vitaliano, D. (1973). Legends of the Earth: Their Geologic Origins.