Discovering the City of Sodom
ONE Down from the Jordan’s Source: The Setting for Sodom
To understand the role of the once-great city-state of Sodom, you must visualize where it is in relation to the rest of the history of the Semitic people in whose land it lies. Though the recent discovery of Sodom seemed to come out of nowhere, it has been in the same place for thousands of years. It must take its proper place on both maps and timelines of Bible events.
It often surprises those who love the Bible when they learn that most of that book’s events took place in a footprint smaller than the state of New Jersey. Excepting the sojourns of biblical people in Egypt and captivity in Babylon (and of course the travels of the apostles after the time of Jesus), practically everything biblical happened in an eight-thousand-square-mile skinny rectangle that transects the so-called Fertile Crescent, which stretches from the Arabian gulf to the borders of the Nile River in Egypt.
Once a year, Albuquerque, New Mexico–based Trinity Southwest University conducts an archaeological study tour
of the Holy Land, crossing back and forth over the fortified but nonetheless amicable borders between Jordan and Israel to see the most significant sites. The grand prize of the tour is a look at Tall el-Hammam—biblical Sodom—over the last days of the tour, of course. But all of Holy Land history, all of the Holy Land itself, is as knitted together as the souls of David and Jonathan. And the lifeblood of the Hebrew people’s history is the river in its heart, and the logic of its story follows the great Jordan River south to the Dead Sea. To understand biblical history you must follow the Jordan—whose very name means “descent”—as it makes its way through the geography of biblical history.
The narrow rectangle of the Holy Land is split, quite literally, right down the middle by the profound valley of the Jordan River. Unlike the upside-down Nile, the Jordan runs north to south through an area called the Great Rift. This long, deep fissure, formed in antiquity by the shifting of adjacent tectonic plates, stretches from Turkey all the way to the Serengeti Plain in Africa. Its once-suboceanic past is revealed by its mountaintops, which are here and there crusted with fossils that even today crunch underfoot.
In the Holy Land, this Rift’s northern border is defined by the Lebanon Mountains and the iconic Mount Hermon, the “grey-haired mountain” whose summit marks the border of modern Israel. Its fifty-foot drifts of snow have inspired psalms, such as the one that compares fellowship to “the dews of Mount Hermon.” The same snow provides one source of the Jordan River’s headwaters and is perhaps the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus, where he communed with Moses and Elijah (Mark 9:2–5).
(How did the apostles know the identity of those two long-dead men when they saw them with Jesus? a guide asks, and then allows guesses until the right answers appear: Moses by the great light coming from his face—Exodus 34:35—and Elijah by his bald head and excessively hairy body—2 Kings 1:8.)
Northern Israel is a thin, vulnerable place, a bruised and bloodied fist that jabs toward its menacing neighbors. Even if there weren’t fortified fences, anyone could see the borders of Israel: just as Egypt is the gift of the Nile, Israel is the gift of drip irrigation. Just across Israel’s barbed-wire borders, where the green ends and the brown begins, lie both Lebanon and Syria and the reasons for bomb shelters in every kibbutz; the signs on
the roadside tell you not to walk past the shoulder because there are mine-fields there.
Visitors try to digest the reality of still-active land mines in a civilized country. They ponder the irony of mosques in Israel and the contradiction of its population of 12 percent of Muslims, whose Quran-reading children take part in the Israeli army’s compulsory service for all its young citizens.
This is a place millions have dreamed of visiting since they heard the Bible stories of childhood. Proportionally, more come here from non-English-speaking countries than not. The popular tourist sites are a Babel—or perhaps, a Pentecost—of groups, huddled in semicircles as they listen to discourses in their native tongues by hoarse and earnest tour guides with waving arms.
American groups contain all types of people. On one extreme are people like the middle-aged Arkansas farmer who tries to figure out how to anchor on his head the little yarmulke with the blue Star of David that he’s just bought from a vendor (and whether or not he should rock back and forth as he prays, as he sees the black-coated Hasidic Jews do). On the other side of the scale is the chattering group of schoolgirls who have been sent here with the hope that old sacrednesses will rub off on them and stick to their clothing when they return to the malls and MP3s of their lives. Somewhere in the middle are the pious families and the young couples who haul their unwitting children from site to site and try to take notes and photographs and videos of every important thing.
And in Israel, every site is an important thing. There is no other place on earth about which so many uncounted libraries have been written. It’s surely the most documented eight thousand square miles on earth.
Some tourists are lured by the churches and mosques built over most of the familiar places: the Temple, the Nativity, the Holy Sepulcher, and the holies of other assorted holies. But a tour specializing in Israel’s archaeology disdains everything Byzantine and newer (“Second century AD, huh? Move on!”) and takes the pilgrim first to the fount of every blessing, the bubbling-up emergence of the Jordan River’s pristine waters
from the very ground at a place called Tel Dan. Here is a lush habitat for birds and salamanders and fish that climb waterfalls, a place where dew and moss drip from everything.
Under excavation and deteriorating in the sopping air at Laish (Tel Dan) down the road is a mudbrick gateway, with perhaps the oldest arch in existence—through which Abraham may have passed on his route from Haran to his inheritance in Canaan (Genesis 12:4–5). Literally a few steps away are the stone foundations of a gateway where kings of his Israelite descendants sat centuries later, arbitrating disputes among the people. Gateways such as this do not always endure, but their stone foundations usually do. Perhaps that is why the idea of a gateway and heaven have become tied together in people’s minds.
Adjacent to it is Caesarea Philippi, the place where Jesus pointed up to a gaping mouth of a cave into which pagans threw human sacrifices to Pan—perhaps subdued by hallucinogens still discernible in excavated ancient drinking vessels. Here Jesus brought his disciples on a six-day journey out of their way, to this place of decision. Here he told his disciples that what he would build, the open heart of a church, would not be a matter of flesh and blood, would not be overcome by such things as this gate into hell (Matthew 16:13–20).
The river falls precipitously a few miles downstream into the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias, as it’s also named in the Bible). Tourists ride in loaded barges across it and eat basketfuls of the grilled St. Peter’s tilapia (named after that apostle’s famous eureka of a coin in the jaws of one of these mouth-breeding fish, as recorded in Matthew 17:24–27). Later, everyone gawks at the recently found “Jesus boat,” a wooden fishing vessel from the first century improbably preserved in Galilean mud until its discovery and restoration just a few years ago.
It isn’t Jesus’s sailing ship, though, because he didn’t own anything. In modern terms, he would have gone to Hertz Rent-a-Boat when he needed one.
On the northwest shore of the lake is Capernaum, one of three cities cursed by Jesus. Yet that same city was extraordinarily blessed when he
healed a servant of the man who built its synagogue. This man, a Roman centurion, possessed and immortalized what Jesus called “astonishing” faith (Luke 7:1–10).
A Christian guide points out the exact middle of the tiled floor. All ancient synagogues are perfect squares, he tells visitors, like God spreading himself over the four corners of the earth. Look here, he says, this is where Jesus would have stood to read. This synagogue floor is much more modern than in Jesus’s day, but the floor from his time lies beneath this one. People go and stand next to that spot, wanting proximity, fearing usurpation lest they crowd out his memory.
The archaeological tour doesn’t go to Nazareth, for there is little ancient to see there. Instead, the visitors look out at what Jesus would have seen from there: a breathtaking landscape that would have been his history book. There everyone could see Mount Tabor’s unmistakable mammary profile, the fitting setting of the story of the extraordinary heroine Deborah when she and Barak conquered the king of Hazor (Judges 4). The sight of Mount Carmel, across the valley, evokes the telling of the fire from heaven that ignited Elijah’s waterlogged firewood and sent the pagan priests running in terror, history’s first cutters, still dripping blood from their self-inflicted skin-slicing (1 Kings 18).
Then the guide points out Sepphoris, a neighboring city not mentioned in biblical texts but that was a bustling building project during the teenage and young adult years of Jesus. His father Joseph, the guide explains, was a tekton, a word whose meaning can include the concept of a carpenter but more probably meant a builder or artisan, perhaps even a stonemason. How many times, as the guide points out, did Jesus speak of stonework, of cornerstones, capstones, foundations, towers? (See Matthew 24:27 and elsewhere.)
Then he tells of a recent discovery in close-by Nazareth, under what is called “the trench of St. Joseph,” of a mikva or ritual bath found only in the homes of wealthy Jews. The question arises: Were Joseph and Son successful regional construction experts? Did Jesus give up a successful career and comfortable lifestyle to become a hounded itinerant rabbi?
No archaeological tour of the Holy Land is complete without several days in Jerusalem. No matter from which direction you come to that city, you always come up, because it’s a mountain in a valley-bowl surrounded by hills. Though situated in the world’s most overdocumented country, this is the most disputed real estate on the planet, its very soil in a constant and intractable tug-of-war between Muslims and Jews and Christians.
It’s as if all of history is distilled and concentrated here so potently that no one wants to share it. Everywhere are ruins and buildings under excavation. The Israeli government’s commitment to archaeology is more than just a scientific endeavor; it’s the Jewish nation’s attempt to confirm an entire history that a Muslim world would deny ever existed.
The repatriation of Jerusalem by non-Arabs, the Arabs say, is just a repeat of the Crusades.
Remembrance is the key to salvation, Jews say; forgetfulness leads to exile.
The old City of David excavations bear witness to a Jewish past: Gihon Spring, David’s water shaft, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, and Warren’s Shaft, the Siloam Pool.
People emerge with the story on their shoulders and heads, green with moss, from the newly excavated sewers through which the rich people of Jerusalem attempted to escape the Romans in 70 CE.
The uncovering and restoration of the house of the high priest, in whose courtyard the prisoner Jesus stood, verifies.
The Garden of Gethsemane, the once-smoldering Hinnom Valley, Herod’s palace, the Mount of Olives, all testify.
And of course the retaining walls of the temple, with massive stones of over a hundred tons each, thirty feet long, unmoved for more than two
millennia from the place where Herod’s workers placed them and today without even a razor’s width between them, mutely communicate an implacable story.
On the archaeological tour, a bearded man with close-cropped gray hair points up to where he has discovered features hidden for millennia. This is Dr. Leen Ritmeyer and the Temple Mount is his adopted homeland, his real estate, and he is the unquestioned expert on this site of all sites. In fact, many of the reconstruction drawings in Jerusalem’s museums and drawings on government-sponsored tour signs in the city are by Ritmeyer. He is a recorder of archaeological data, the extrapolator of it, interpreter of new discoveries such as the famous trumpeting sign on the Temple Mount. He is legend to non-Arab archaeologists and at the same time a persona non grata, banned from the Muslim Dome of the Rock and its surrounding precinct.
The modern city of Jerusalem is a jumble. Viewed from the outside, its very topography exemplifies and illustrates the contradictions of Israel. It is peaks and valleys, inclusions and exclusions, history and future, one side moistened by the Mediterranean and heavily wooded, the other cracked, dry desert.
The desert. The Hebrew word for desert is the same as the word for hearing. Throughout its history, people went to the desert to listen: Jesus “shoved” by the Holy Spirit (as the koine Greek of Mark 1:12 describes it) into desolate places to hear the voice of Satan, the apostle Paul then tutored by Jesus whispering in the winds of the Arabian dunes (Galatians 1:12–17). Both were heirs of the legacy of Old Testament prophets sent into sandy exile, where they too heard voices from beyond this world.
There is little of archaeology in the desert places of Israel, but its few sites are stark and memorable.
Qumran, of course, is the essence of the speaking of the desert itself, which divulged in 1947 the long-silent Dead Sea Scrolls. These famous documents were written (it is supposed) by Essenes who built their desert community in homage to parchment and what could be immortalized on it, intentionally facing library and scriptorium east, to get rid of moisture.
Ritmeyer concurs, saying that he can’t begin any of his architectural drawings in the Holy Land until the sun comes up and dries the paper.
He taps with his foot the crust of the unique sandy soil that closes itself up and sheds water. No wonder the scrolls survived the ages in their clay jars. Could there be more of them? Perhaps the desert might still have muted voices waiting to speak.
Near the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea towers its most iconic desert symbol of Jewish nationalism, Masada, the fortress/palace city of Herod. Still visible from its breath-catching heights are the outlines of the camps of an entire legion of Roman soldiers who over a six-month period built a huge siege ramp up to the captured fortress to try to kill more than 900 occupying Jewish men, women, and children.
Rations alone for the legion would have totaled more than $36 million in modern currency. What was the great threat? Was it to Roman pride, losing a garrison because its guards, who thought it impregnable, were careless?
Centuries before the Romans, King David once ascended and secreted himself on the heights of Masada, as 1 Samuel 23:14 indicates when it speaks of his hiding in a “stronghold” in the Judean desert. But his favorite desert hideout from the wrath of King Saul (1 Samuel 24:1) was the lush slit in the Judean hills, the lovely and surprising En-Gedi. At its summit is a concave of caves, with a dagger of light and water into its heart, its legendary spring. It’s a wonder that David would leave that place of peace and beauty to try to rule over a contentious nation that, after his son’s death, would never again be united.
Secrets of the Waters
But the desert is far from the heart of Israel, because its lifeblood is in the Jordan. This river meanders so much that if it were straightened out, it would be twenty miles longer. Its fords and falls cache some of the best
stories in the Bible. The patriarch Jacob crossed over it and its tributary (Genesis 32:22); an entire nation in exile walked dry-shod over its damp and dammed-up riverbed to claim its inheritance beyond the ruins of the walls of Jericho (Joshua 3:14–17). It delineated the border between some of the tribes and their brothers. Here Jephthah killed the Ephraimites (Judges 5:12–6), Gideon lay in wait for the Midianites (Judges 7:24), and Solomon’s foundries of brass seethed (1 Kings 7:46). Atop its waves two prophets walked (2 Kings 2:8, 14); at its banks Elijah performed two miracles (2 Kings 5:14, 6:6). The river isn’t just source and border, it’s cleansing too: in its depths Jesus himself submitted to baptism (Mark 1:9). From that point on, he crisscrossed its shores during his entire teaching ministry.
The river is the distillation of a nation’s history; it is life. But like all earthly life, it begins to slow and amass the ills of earth, until it reaches its own death in the Great Salt Sea.
On the western shore of the Dead Sea, Israeli ingenuity has recently made fruit trees grow in the pebbly and boulderous lime-caked sand, little outposts of green vigor in this lifeless place. Nearby, the desiccated cliffs seem so imposing, yet so fragile that they would crumble under the fingernail of God.
The Great Salt Sea lies in its own crusted coffin, seeming to have pushed its heels up against an impassible barrier on its south side. It reaches the lowest point on earth—thirteen hundred feet below sea level—as the Jordan ceases to erode, becomes muddy and morbid and turgid, and is finally trapped in its own dead-end rut.
But its depths hold secrets: at its lake bottom, it’s another twelve hundred feet below its own surface.
It is incredibly salty, not because it has no outlet (many other lakes have no outlet and yet have fresh and sparkling water), but because its surrounding rock strata are laden with anhydrous chloride salts that leach into the water until its molecules can absorb no more. Then, until more seasonal water flows from the river into the lake, the laden water waits patiently to capture more salt.
Its many names reflect people’s theories about it. Jews of Jesus’s day
called it Lake Asphaltitus because it had for centuries spit up little black chunks of asphalt from deep deposits. But earlier in Genesis it was called the Salt Sea, or the Sea of the Arabah, or the Eastern Sea (which makes perfect sense if you lived between it and the Mediterranean). But to most people, it’s best known as the Dead Sea.
Do you want to know the level of that body of water in antiquity? It fluctuated. During the Bronze Age (around the time of Abraham and his descendants, before they went to Egypt), and during the Roman period, and then during the Byzantine period and the Middle Ages, it looked almost exactly as it does today in the twenty-first century.
The level of the lake has never been lower than it is now, not since humans have lived here. Therefore, there isn’t the remotest possibility that there are hidden cities beneath its brackish surface. Sodom and Gomorrah aren’t there. Not now, not before. Not ever.
The waters have secrets to divulge, perhaps. But if you’re going to look for the famous Cities of the Plain, the site of Sodom, its sister city Gomorrah, and the others, you’ll have to look somewhere else.