Reading A Little Deeper

Last week maths teacher Dr Richardson’s assembly focussed on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis, Chapter 18. The story itself is a bleak story of two cities so badly behaved that they were destroyed by God, but are there lessons to be learnt from stories like this that go beyond the text itself? A fantastic ‘thought for the day’:

 

This morning’s reading is taken from Genesis chapter 18

‘God told Abraham that he intended to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because their inhabitants were guilty of terrible crimes. Abraham pleaded on their behalf, and God agreed that if he found 10 good people there, he would not destroy them.

Two angels went to Sodom and stayed with Abraham’s nephew Lot. There they saw the wickedness of the people, and soon they said to Lot “Are there any other members of your family here. You must tell them to leave at once or they will die when the city is destroyed. Run as fast as you can and on no account look behind you.”

By the time the sun had risen, Lot and his family had reached Zoar. Then the Lord rained down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gommorah, so that they and their people and the surrounding plain and everything that grew and moved upon it were totally destroyed. Feeling the heat and hearing the noise, Lot’s wife turned to look behind her, and was turned into a pillar of salt.

The next morning, Abraham rose early and looked towards the plain. Instead of the two great cities, he saw a column of thick smoke rising from the plain.’

 

So there you have it. Sodom and Gomorrah. Two cities whose people were so naughty that God lost patience with them and destroyed them by sending fire and brimstone down from heaven. Let that be a lesson for you.

Now, could I have a show of hands if you think that this is a true story. Anyone?

It is the job of archaeologists to look for physical evidence of places and events mentioned in historical documents such as the Bible. The first recorded expedition to search for the city of Sodom was in 1847. This, and subsequent attempts, proved fruitless, and as a result, the archaeological community took the view that Sodom and Gomorrah never existed. The Bible states that Sodom was the biggest city in the region at the time. If such a city existed and was destroyed, then there should be evidence left behind. The means of destruction also posed a problem. Fire coming down from heaven sounds like a volcano or possibly a meteorite. But there are no meteorite craters in the Middle East. There are also no volcanoes, and it’s not an earthquake zone. So, without a plausible murder weapon, or a body, most historical detectives have found God not guilty of this crime, and declared that Sodom and Gomorrah never existed.

But in 2005, a new investigation was started, led by Dr. Steven Collins, an American professor who had spent 30 years investigating sites in the Holy Land. He decided to look for Sodom after reading the biblical account of the story again and coming to the conclusion that everyone had been looking in the wrong place. Years of experience had taught Dr Collins that whatever you may think of the Bible as an accurate historical source, one aspect that always stands up to any scrutiny is its geographical accuracy. Any statements of location, such as ‘West of the Jordan’, or ‘south of Jericho’ invariably prove to be correct. The pillar of salt angle had meant that previous searches had focussed on the Dead Sea area, where pillars of salt actually exist. However, the Bible says that Sodom and Gomorrah lay in a valley to the east of Bethel. So Dr. Collins went to Bethel, headed east, and found a valley with a number of abandoned archaeological digs.

The pottery at one site tells us that it was occupied continuously up until the middle Bronze Age, but then completely abandoned for over 700 years. There is considerable debate about dates of early biblical events, but the middle Bronze Age is in the right ballpark for the destruction of Sodom. So far so good. But then amongst the Bronze Age fragments, pieces of what appeared to be glazed pottery were found. This is pottery which has been intensely heated on one side, so as to turn it into glass. The technology to do this didn’t appear until much later, and so this placed a large question mark over the dating of the site. Dr. Collins took some of the glazed pottery back to America to get it analysed. The results posed as many questions as they answered. The material that coated one side of these ancient fragments was identified as Trinitite, a material only discovered in the 1950’s and previously only found at nuclear test sites. It is formed when sand is exposed to temperatures of around 2000˚C, and the thin nature of the coating suggested this intense heat only lasted for a few minutes, perhaps even seconds. On further investigation in subsequent years, Trinitite has been found all over the site, always forming in a thin layer on only one side of each object. At the same time, human remains were also being discovered all over the dig site. And these were not neatly buried. These were people who had died in the streets and in their homes, much like at Pompeii.

By now, as you can imagine, Dr. Collins really thought he was on to something. A city of about the right size, in the right place, occupied and abandoned at about the right time, and seemingly the victim of a nuclear bomb, or something equally cataclysmic. The next challenge was to explain how such an event could occur. Whether countries in the Middle East have weapons of mass destruction is notoriously hard to prove, but we can be fairly sure that they didn’t have them 4000 years ago. Failing that, then a meteor strike would seem the only other explanation. However, the absence of a meteor crater confirms that didn’t happen. So what did happen? Dr. Collins’s theory is that Sodom was destroyed by an event similar to one which occurred in Siberia in 1908.

Known as the Tunguska event, an explosion flattened some 80 million trees over an area of 2000 km2. Witnesses over 40km away reported seeing a blinding flash of light in the sky followed by an intense blast of heat. Scientists now believe that this event was caused by a meteor that exploded in the atmosphere, releasing 1000 times more energy than the Hiroshima bomb. And yet there is no crater, and no fragments of the meteor have ever been found. Such an event is known as an airburst.

So is this what is described in Chapter 18 of Genesis? Was Sodom destroyed by a meteorite that exploded overhead, causing devastation greater than a nuclear bomb? It would certainly explain why the largest city in the region was suddenly abandoned for 700 years. And you could easily imagine how such an event could be interpreted as an act of God.

Like any theory based on fragments of evidence 4000 years old, it has not been universally accepted, but it certainly makes for a good story.

It seems that so often, faith and science are opposed to each other, with advances in scientific understanding being used as evidence to disprove the existence of God. Debates such as evolution and the creation of the universe are often seen in terms of Science vs God. What I like about this story is that science has been used to investigate the possibility that a Bible story 4000 years old, and long thought to have been a work of fiction, may actually have happened after all. And yet, before the geologists, chemists and astrophysicists got involved, how was the possible site of Sodom discovered? By reading the Bible more carefully. Maybe there’s a lesson there.