By Michael Wren
As Abraham camped somewhere near Hebron, he received three visitors representing the Lord. As their meeting closed, the Lord spoke to the great man of faith, “Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is immense, and their sin is extremely serious. I will go down to see if what they have done justifies the cry that has come up to Me. If not, I will find out,” (Genesis 18:20-21). At this point, as Abraham looked from his high vantage point east across the Jordan at the territory of Sodom, he implored of the Lord, “What if there are 50 righteous people in the city? Will You really sweep it away instead of sparing the place for the sake of the 50 righteous people who are in it? You could not possibly do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. You could not possibly do that! Won’t the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Abraham undoubtedly knew the reputation of Sodom, but he also believed in the power and justice of God. He knew what God could and would do to those who are faithless and reprehensible. However, massive, widespread destruction as a result of divine judgment would bring with it the destruction of the righteous as well. Abraham grieved over the destruction of an entire society and over the suffering that the people of Sodom, particularly any who might be righteous, would endure. And so he implored that God not sweep away an entire society hastily.
But of course the Lord did destroy Sodom. The wickedness of Sodom is starkly recounted in Genesis 19. As a result, when Lot, Abraham’s nephew, was clear of the city, “then out of the sky the LORD rained burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah from the LORD. He demolished these cities, the entire plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and whatever grew on the ground,” (Genesis 19:24-25). This story is a sobering reminder of the perfect justice of God and the terrifying result of human depravity.
Until recently, this story was found only in the pages of Genesis. However, since 2005, an archaeologist from Trinity Southwest University, Dr. Stephen Collins, has been excavating a mound (a “tall”) just east of the Jordan River in the Kingdom of Jordan with a team of scientists and volunteers, and he believes he has found the site of biblical Sodom. The site, named Tall el-Hammam, was inhabited during Abraham’s time, was destroyed during Abraham’s time, and is found exactly where the Bible says Sodom ought to be. And here is what he found: the remains of a massive city several times the size of Joshua’s Jericho, surrounded by huge walls made from between 150 and 200 million mudbricks, a monumental gate complex, several city squares, an intricate network of city streets, public buildings, and private residences. Only the foundations of these impressive structures are left, and all buried under a meter thick layer of ash. Yes, the city that once inhabited Tall el-Hammam was incinerated. Upon investigation, Carter discovered that the city was hit by a massive blast that generated enough heat to incinerate mudbrick and heat pottery to the point of melting into glass. The heat was incredibly intense, much too hot for Middle Bronze Age humans to generate, but much too brief to be a volcanic phenomenon. As soon as the heat blast hit, it was gone. An explosion overhead. And what of the inhabitants? In seven years of excavation, they have found several bodies, but they have more often found scattered bone fragments mixed in with the melted mudbrick and ash. The people of the city were hit with a massive, instantaneous explosion (he speculates that perhaps an exploding meteor could generate that kind of effect) that incinerated everything, including the people. The few bodies they have found within the city were unburied, lying on the ground, and contorted in pain. And the blast zone seems to stretch well beyond the city to the surrounding area.
Carter’s case that Tall el-Hammam is Sodom is compelling, and his work provides us with a visualization of the wrath of God in action. What could provoke such wrath? The story in Genesis 19 reveals perverse sexuality and a complete disregard for the social norms of hospitality. However, the prophets tell us more. Ezekiel said of Sodom and its sister cities Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, “she and her daughters had pride, plenty of food, and comfortable security, but didn’t support the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before Me, so I removed them when I saw this,” (Ezekiel 16:49-50). Arrogance, selfish indulgence in luxury, greed, disregard for the needs of others, and detestable moral practices. These are the sins that incinerated Sodom and its inhabitants. And if Carter is right about the location, the city of Sodom was not a fly by night establishment. It had been inhabited, flourished, and dominated the politics of the region for about 2500 years. Yet worldly prosperity and security were not enough to save Sodom.
The sins of Sodom are the sins of our society. Just as Isaiah called his own people “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:9), the same could be said of our nation. What is the church to do? First, the church must not live and think like the people of Sodom. We must conduct ourselves in righteousness, in purity, in humility, and in compassion. The church must be the holy and humble bride of Christ, a light in the darkness. Second, the church must pick up the mantle of the prophets and compassionately proclaim the truth of God’s word to people who have disregarded it. We must not disregard our prophetic role. Third, however, we must pick up the mantle of Abraham. We must intercede for our Sodom. Let us implore the Lord to act justly, but not hastily. Let us pray that God would change hearts and renew minds, so our society will not be swept away.
For further reading, see Carter’s book, Discovering the City of Sodom.