The search for the Cities of the Plain begins with some scholars saying they were non-existent. (1918 - W. F. Albright; 1948 - Martin Noth and finally Theodor Noldeke). Noldeke's rejection was based upon the idea that no route east of the Jordan River existed, as was described in the Biblical account. Evidence to support ancient eastern travel in Abraham's day was discovered in a clay tablet from Babylonia, and also from a group of tablets found near the edge of present day Syria, at the site of the ancient city of Mari. On the Babylonian tablet a contract was found with the stipulation that a wagon was rented on condition that it was not driven to the Mediterranean coast.
Later, the actual route was found by Nelson Glueck. For awhile the discovery of the Ebla tablets in 1974 were reported to reveal the historical existence of the Cities of the Plain. University of Rome excavators, Giovanni Pettinato and Paolo Matthiae translated tablets taken from Ebla (Tell Mardikh) and report that on one of the tablets a trade list is recorded which includes the Cities of the Plain (David Freedman 1978). However, most scholars today doubt these readings. Sadly, Pettinato and Matthiae have taken opposite sides over this issue ending their working relationship. The Ebla tables play an important role in biblical studies as they shed light on Palestinian life in the 3rd millennium BC.
In 1924 W. F. Albright, led an expedition in order to locate the Cities of the Plain. After an investigation of the area with little success, Albright concluded that the Cities of the Plain were swallowed up by the Dead Sea as it swelled with water and they were covered forever. This theory was further substantiated by Ralph E. Baney's discovery in 1960 of a small tree in the growth position beneath the southern basin of the Dead Sea. This showed that the continuous filling of the Dead Sea had taken land which was once exposed, supporting W. F. Albright's theory. Albright did, however, find the ruins of a great fortress, Bab edh-Dhra, built of stone overlooking the deep ravine of Wadi Kerak. Taking into consideration the lack of occupational debris and seven fallen limestone monoliths found a short distance east of Bab edh-Dhra, Albright concluded that this was a place of pilgrimage where annual feasts were celebrated. He concluded that Bab edh-Dhra was directly related to the Cities of the Plain because it was unoccupied about the time the Cities of the Plain were destroyed 2000 B.C. or a little earlier. However, Bab edh-Dhra's date of destruction is now confirmed at about 2350 B.C. for the fortified town and about 2250 B.C. for the unwalled rebuild, likely putting it out of chronological range for the time of Abraham and Lot.
Between 1965 and 1967 Bab edh-Dhra was excavated under the direction of Paul Lapp. Much work was done at a large cemetery south of the city. It was more than five-eighths of a mile in length and at least half that wide. If the work which was done is typical, the area may contain a minimum of 20,000 shaft tombs estimating the dead at over half a million and the number of potsherds at two million!
Unfortunately, Paul Lapp died unexpectedly in 1970 and the task of further research fell to R. Thomas Schaub and Walter E. Rast. They set out to answer some unanswered questions about Bab edh-Dhra. In late May, 1973, they began to examine some similarities between pottery from Bab edh-Dhra and pottery found at Safi and Feifa.
In first examining the Feifa site they discovered a burial ground which could compete with Bab edh-Dhra in size and usage. Then they found the remains of a city wall and a tower. Early Bronze Age 3000-2350 B.C. pottery was also discovered which placed this ruin in the same time period as Bab edh-Dhra. Feifa was discovered on the north side of the Wadi Feifa.
While exploring the Wadi south of Bab edh-Dhra, Schaub and Rast came upon another early bronze fortification. Numeira was also located on a level top of a plain just south of the spring, Wadi Numeira.
There was a pattern forming. Each of the early bronze sites was discovered built on a piece of ground overlooking a Wadi (ravine), enclosed by a stone wall with a tower at one end, and situated near a spring.
Now knowing what to look for, Schaub and Rast combed the area between Lisan in the north to the Southern tip of the Ghor between Numeira and Feifa. They found Safi located on a piece of limestone overlooking the Wadi Hesa where they found early bronze pottery. They again found a cemetery that could compete with Bab edh-Dhra and Feifa in size and kind. The last early bronze site to be discovered was Khanazir, the southern most city located on the northern side of the Wadi Khanazir. This site has all of the common characteristics of the other four sites with the exception of the cemetery.
Dr. Steven Collins of Trinity Southwest University proposes that Tall el-Hammam in central Jordan is the location of Sodom. This is the largest Middle Bronze Age site in the region north of the Dead Sea. Evidence suggests that it was not occupied for over five centuries (late Iron Age 1000-586 BC) following its destruction in the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550 BC). Dr. Collins began excavations at the site in 2005-2006 and has not discovered any Late Bronze Age (1550-1000 BC) pottery.. He argues that Bab edh-Dhra could not be the site of Sodom because "Bab edh-Dhra was destroyed several hundred years before Abraham and Lot were ever born, and besides, it's entirely in the wrong place!" The strength of the northern location is supported by the Biblical descripiton of the geography (Gen 13:3) which was argued by all archaeologists prior to Albright. The Archaeological Study Bible identifies Tall el-Hammam as Shittim (location of Israel's encampment prior to entering the promised land) however gives no archaeological evidence for this identification (p 233). In Moses day the region of Sodom was described as a "Wasteland below Pisgah" (Num. 21:20).
Idenifying the SitesIn Genesis 13:3 that Abraham and Lot were in the region between Bethel and Ai when they picked out the location of the Land. The plain of Jordan just in front of Jericho would be visible from this mountainous location.
In Genesis 13:10 the description of the area of land Lot chose is described as, "Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, towards Zoar" (Gen 13:10 NIV). The Plain of Jordan is a unique Hebrew word (kikkar) usually meaning "round loaf of bread" or "round coin". It is only used for a geographic location in the Bible for the plain of Jordan (Gen 13:10-12; 19:17; 19:25, 28-29; Deut 34:3; 1 Kg 7:46; 2 Ch 4:17; 2 Sam 18:23) and used for the circular area around Jerusalem (Neh 3:22 12:28). The term can be translated circular district (BDB Lexicon, Whittaker). The location that best fits this description is at the north end of the Dead Sea known as the plain of Jordan. The other Hebrew term used to describe the area is kullahh mashgeh which literally means to be "completely and totally irrigated". It was this area which was "well watered" like the garden of God and the Nile (Gen. 13:10).
The grapes of Sodom and Gomorrah are referred to in Deuteronomy 32:32 and the sin of Sodom mentioned in Ezekiel 16:49 indicates that they were over-fed. Christ describes the condition of Sodom as people "eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building" (Luke 17:28 NIV).
The phrase, Cities of the Plain, in Genesis 13:12 and 19:29 is in what is known in Hebrew as the "construct state". This means that the word cities has a very close association with word plain.
The Biblical text requires that the location of the cities be located on the eastern side of the round district of the Jordan Valley and would need to be well watered and visible from the mountains around Bethel and Ai. Tall el-Hammam fits this description perfectly.
Reconstruction of DestructionThe account of the destruction of all the Cities of the Plain except Zoar is given in Genesis 19:23-25. "By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. 24 Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah-- from the LORD out of the heavens. 25 Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities-- and also the vegetation in the land" (Gen 19:23-25). From the research of geologist Frederick G. Clapp, who visited the area in 1929 and 1934, it was discovered that there are fault lines along the east and west sides of the Dead Sea. The Cities of the Plain would lie at the edge of the valley of Jordan along the eastern fault line. Also, earthquakes are common to the area. In Clapp's research, asphalt and petroleum accompanied by natural gas were found in the area. From Genesis 14:10, it is evident that the valley of Siddim was full of tar pits. This tar is naturally occurring asphalt (Gen 11:3; Exodus 2:3). With the assistance of the imagination, the destruction of the Cities of the Plain can be recreated. Bryant Wood speculates that, "these combustible materials could have been forced from the earth by subterranean pressure brought about by an earthquake resulting from the shifting of the bounding faults. If these combustibles were ignited by lightning or some other agency as they came spewing forth from the ground, it would indeed result in a holocaust such as described in Genesis 19." One would expect to find wide spread burning in the area. From the 1973 report by Rast and Schaub there is evidence of widespread burning in the case of three of the cities. At Numeira, a pit was dug which cut through a seven foot thick layer of dark ash and at Feifa, much the same evidence of destruction by fire could be found (Gen 19:28).
However, there is also evidence of severe burning at Tall el-Hammam at the Middle Bronze Age level, which is closer to the time of Abraham and Lot. This has been verified by the recent excavations led by Dr. Steve Collins at Tall el-Hammam.
Matching the Cities
The question then is it possible to identify the Cities of the Plain with archaeological sites today? Traditionally the name of Zoar has remained since Bible times as the site on the Wadi Hesa near modern es-Safi identified on the Madaba map in the church in Madaba, Jordan. This beautiful mosaic depicts the region of the Holy Land during the 6th century BC and places Zoar at this location. However no archaeological evidence has been uncovered to indicate that this site is Zoar. In fact there is no remains earlier than the Hellenistic Period. Dr. Bryant Wood has identified the cities of Bab edh-Dhra as Sodom, Numeira as Gomorrah, es-Safi as Zoar, Feifa as Admah, and Khanazir as Zeboiim. However, the dates of the destruction in the Early Bronze age does not match the period of Abraham (Hyksos period held by Kitchen, Collins and Chavalas) who may have entered Canaan about 1875 BC with Sodom being destroyed sometime later. Also recent geological studies of the Dead Sea indicate that the southern tip of the Dead sea (Lisan) was never a well-watered plain nor ever shaped in a circle. Given the geographical characteristics of the northern end of the Dead Sea and recent discoveries at Tall el-Hammam it may be wise to rethink the locations of the five cities of the plain in the southern end of the Dead Sea.
Reconstruction of Life
From the Biblical account, we know of their wickedness. Also the residence of Sodom "were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building" (Luke 17:28 NIV). One would expect to find evidence of trade, commerce, and agriculture.
Many of the people would be occupied with the agriculture which was so vital to the five cities. Many would be involved with tomb cutting which required professional workmanship to accomplish. Others would be professional potters as is evident from the quality of pottery found in the region at various sites. Some, like Abraham and Lot raised flocks and herds and there are other occupations which are necessary for sustaining life in this form of community such as spinners and weavers, builders, tentmakers, craftsmen, artisans, merchants, etc.
Religious BeliefsIt has already been mentioned that the people were extremely wicked. The site of the five cities of the Plain should reveal cultic object and likely fertility figurines.
Significance of Discoveries
The discoveries at Tall el-Hammam are soon to be published, and may shed significant light on the debate over the location of ancient Sodom and the five cities of the plain. If the destruction of these cities can be dated to the general period of the Patriarchs, we will have the first historical date for Abraham. This new information may help fill in the chronological structure of history prior to Solomon.
Throughout Bible history Sodom and Gomorrah have stood out as important examples of God's punishment on sin. Jesus even used these cities to reveal His coming in Luke 17:28-30. "It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. 30 'It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32 Remember Lot's wife!' " (Luke 17:28-32 NIV). The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are a warning to our own society as it goes about its business, all the while rejecting and disobeying God.